BWW Interview: Alexandra Gilbreath Talks THE PROVOKED WIFE
She returns to take on the role of Lady Brute in the Restoration romp The Provoked Wife. Talking about the relevance of the play today, she also takes us through her experience at the RSC from straight out of drama school to "Shakespearean ninja!"
Welcome back to RSC once again!
Thanks! It's terrifying to admit to (because I can't quite believe I'm old enough, but I am!) I'm in my 26th year with the RSC.
Wow, so what was your first production?
I started in 1993 and my first production was Ghosts with Simon Russell Beale, Jane Lapotaire, John Normington, and John Carlisle, and it was directed by Katie Mitchell. How about that for little me, just out of drama school!
It was the most wonderful experience, particularly for someone starting out: to be involved in that extraordinary company with that director at that time. That was thrilling.
It must have been such great training, as a young actor.
Exactly. We used to have this thing called the Shakespeare Gymnasium, and the entire company sits in a room and works on sonnets. And it used to be absolutely terrifying! You just don't think you're qualified and it's incredibly exposing.
But what Greg Doran wants to do now is the whole company gets together and we just go through speeches and sonnets. It's perhaps an opportunity for the more experienced people in the room to share what they've learned.
So now I get asked sometimes, "Will you come and do a Shakespeare masterclass?" And I think it sounds like I'm a Shakespearean ninja! So it's not scary.
It's about making it accessible for everyone.
Exactly, because if doesn't belong to us then who does it belong to?
I remember Greg and I were doing As You Like It and I was playing Rosalind, so I was terrified! And it was before they rebuilt the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, so there was this museum right next to the Swan.
We went on a tour on the morning of our Press Day. And we were looking at all the lovely things, these lovely bits of history: Garrick's sword, a dress belonging to Vivien Leigh. And I remember thinking, this isn't helpful.
And it's like he read my mind. So he said, "Gather round! The reason I've brought you all here is that the point is this stuff is in the museum. It's been and gone, the RSC doesn't belong to this lot any more; it belongs to you. It's your job now, you take the baton."
And so I understood. When you take on those big roles, you are stepping in this incredibly large and intimidating shoes. But it doesn't belong to them; it belongs to us. And what we're doing is sharing the plays with the next generation. I was very inspired by that.
It's amazing to be part of that history and legacy.
I remember we were doing The Winter's Tale. And I remember teching and Estelle Kohler was playing Paulina and I was playing Hermione. And I heard her gasp and I asked, "What's the matter?" And she went, "Look at my cardi!"
She was wearing this rather dull, tatty, old, brown cardi. And inside was written: "Peggy Aschroft: Countess, All's Well". And I was like, "Oh!" And we showed everyone and we all gathered around like, "Can I touch it!"
And then we did The Taming of the Shrew a few years later and I said to Greg, "You know what I need now in this part of the play? I think I need Peggy's cardi, definitely need it."
And there was a to and fro about keeping it in the archive. But honestly, if Peggy was alive today she would have been like, "Enough already! Just let them wear it!" So I got to wear it! And every time I put it on it was like that little bit of magic. "I'm going to take Peggy on with me again".
So stepping away from Shakespeare, you're appearing in John Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife. How familiar were you with it?
I played Lady Brute at drama school in my final year, and it was directed by a friend of mine who's coming to see the show in August. And I thought, "Oh it's going to be marvellous, I've already done it. I know it!" And I could not remember any of it! So I thought I was familiar with it, but I obviously wasn't.
But I think I had ideas about Restoration writing. Plays written at this point were very different to the start of Restoration: this explosion of theatre, the introduction of actresses onto the stage. At this point, weren't just bawdy comedies any more; they were issue based as well.
How did you found tackling those issues in the rehearsal room?
We found it quite challenging. And that was largely because of the subject matter, that in some respects we've not moved on at all in 300 and something years. There are so many moments when you go, "Are we really still dealing with this sh*t?"
In terms of how the women are treated, I know that we've moved on our expectations, they're wider as women. But you know, we're still listed as "chattle" in the House of Lords. We're still dealing with #MeToo, we're still dealing with inequality. And so here we are dealing with these issues in a play which is a comedy.
But at the same time, you have a play where you have two women at the end of the first half standing on stage in their nightwear with a line that says, "Let our weakness be what it will, mankind will still be weaker. And whilst there is a world, 'tis woman that will govern it."
How does that play to the audience?
It depends on who's in. Sometimes when there are lots of young students in, they cheer, "Yes! Absolutely!" But a lot of the time with the older generation, the matinee audience, they don't say a word.
I think it's partially because they think they wouldn't be allowed to. But it's possible that they still fit those ideas. They're happily married, they've had kids. Their experience of life is very different. But I don't know. But I find it extraordinary.
And to an audience of the time, it must have been interesting to see how it played. The law divorce had changed, so therefore women had slightly more power.
How do you find those comedic elements play, against some serious themes?
It's a comedy and yet we didn't rehearse it as a comedy. We rehearsed it as if we were doing Ibsen, because I suppose it's that truth.
I think as well, if you rehearse it very seriously, once we're on stage and we see a laughter, you hear that and you adapt your performance accordingly! And our director Phillip [Breen] was always keen on counteracting that. He always said to me, "Alex you are having such a good time, aren't you?" "Yes!" He said, "Lady Brute isn't. So can you stop enjoying yourself so much. This is an ordeal for her." It's more painful.
There is quite a famous scene in the second half, where there's this tumble. Sir John Brute tumbles Lady Brute, and you think what is that? What is a tumble? And it's a sexual assault.
So how do you play that? Is it comedy? Do you do it a bit half-heartedly? Or is the tension so high that you do it for real? And then how does that change the play? Because I think the play is a bit darker.
It's not the bawdy Restoration comedy of those early plays; there are other issues involved. We'd be doing the plays a disservice if we didn't investigate those moments. And it caused a lot of discussion in rehearsal.
But it was something that John Slinger and Phillip and I were very keen to do with sincerity. We didn't want to shy away from it, it's a moment that becomes very dark. In the play it's over very quickly, but it is real.
There is a level of sexual violence. Two women a week re killed by their partners in this country. That's over 100 women a year. So we are still dealing with fundamental issues. And one of those is double standards, which rears its head in the play.
For example, Lady Brute doesn't do anything apart from have her hand and neck kissed and play cards. She doesn't do anything sexually. And yet Sir John Brute, says "I've been hanging out out with whores!" He doesn't come home. So the rules are very different between sexes. That issue hasn't changed.
So it is dark and we miss that at our peril. And it's really important for that moment to be realistic.
The Provoked Wife at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 7 September
Photo credit: Pete Le May