Theatre: Preparing for my role

If you have been following me in the last couple of months, you’ll know already that I have been part of the company, Black and White Productions, in the play, Thomas Wolsey: The Rise and Fall, by the brilliant local playwright, Suzanne Hawkes. I have to mention, by the way, that as well as being a fantastic and ever-popular writer, Suzanne Hawkes is an excellent actor, with a genius for comic timing. I’ve seen a few of her plays and they are always excellent, and I enjoy her appearances in them too. It’s been a really joy to work with this company of amazing and very friendly actors and its writer/director. Do see if you can spot some of her more subtle comic moments too – as I say ‘look to your vestments,’ see what she does!

I have been playing two very different characters: The prophet, Elizabeth Barton, and the usurped King’s Mistress, Mary Boleyn. In preparing for the roles, I researched both, and found that there was very little about Barton in her own right, yet she is an important historical figure, not least as an insight into the way women were perceived, treated and manipulated in the Tudor times. Of course, any woman who was too outspoken was usually tried as a witch, and Barton met her fate being hanged for treason and witchcraft by daring to predict the downfall and death of the King. Several of her prophecies were, in fact, accurate, but sadly she wrongly predicted the King’s death, although the disruption due to his marriage with Anne Boleyn was certainly something she foresaw.

Barton was a sort of celebrity in her day, with many followers, and she must have been a powerful speaker. In line with the director’s vision of her, and my own interpretation, I have been presenting her as witch-like, with crazed energy and an unshakeable conviction that she was right. According to sources, she fell ill when young and suffered from violent visions, (epilepsy?) believing them to come from God. She was also, to me, brave to front up to powerful men and argue back when it was likely to put her life in danger. As well as her power, I wanted to convey the sort of desperate, slightly vulnerable energy of the cat under threat, hissing and spitting at all around it. We must also assume that the men in power, the enemies of the King or members of the church exploited her popularity to push their own agenda. As Cromwell in the play states, ‘I do not know whether she is a pawn or a true prophet.’

The movements had to match the character and in line with the spitting and hissing cat inspiration, they are fast, jerky and unpredictable. And yes, I do leap down from the pulpits, and on the third night my foot knew about it as I landed on the cold stone floor unable to show it was a bit of a shock. I usually add some very slight variation to the choreography each time, just to keep the other actors slightly unnerved as is fitting for this character. This was aided by the pulpit being on different sides in different venues – a mirrored performance always keeps it interesting. As for the hair and face, well, my natural hair is very curly, so the bird’s nest style works well, with pale lips, and to turn into Barton completely, my eyes become unblinking and somehow smaller. I get to have a powerful entrance, but I don’t want to spoil things by spilling the beans as the play is returning in the Autumn.

As for the other Boleyn girl, it couldn’t. be more different. Her movements are slow, gliding and elegant, her accent French (she was brought up in France) with a slightly anglicised sound too, as she is in the English court now. French accents require squashing all of the sound to the front of your mouth, and for the flirtatious siren I am playing, this has the handy side effect of making the lips pout. I took advice to push the sound forward and give myself a few stock sounds, le, le Le, dede de, about about about and not not not, to get into the French sound. It worked out well. As soon as I put on the red lips, and Tudor crown between scenes, I become Mary. As I slink around intimidating poor old Cromwell, I think the closest comparison is the snake from the Jungle Book – ‘trust in me…’ My feeling is that Mary was angry and upset at being usurped by her sister and used her sexuality (a woman’s only weapon back then) to play the game as best she could. But in the end she did rather well NOT marrying Henry VIII as she kept her head and lived a good life. If your were a woman in the Tudor Court, I would imagine you would do best to keep your head down, so to speak, and take what you could get.

I will miss these characters as I stop being them for a while, and look forward to their return. To ‘take them off,’ I change my clothes and shake my hair and then I have a nice glass of wine at home. It takes a couple of hours to come down after a performance, so tonight being the last night, I will probably end up sleeping for a long time on Sunday.

So, I am literally now off to the last night of this run, at Bucklesham church, where I am informed that the ghosts of my ancestors lie in the Runnacles family crypt! I hope they are all on our side tonight!

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