BWW Interview: Hannah Morrish Talks TITUS ANDRONICUS
Please note: this article contains references to rape and sexual assault
Playing Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Portia in Julius Caesar and Virgilia in Coriolanus, Hannah spoke to us about the female voice and timeliness of this season.
What were your first experiences with Shakespeare?
Well, my grandfather loved Shakespeare. And he had been a preacher, but he came out of this particular religious sect and plunged himself into acting.
I actually remember him taking me to see something here when I was about eight. I'm pretty sure it was one of the Henry IVs. And I later found out that David Troughton [Titus] was in that production.
And so my grandfather and I were sat in the audience in about 2001, and I was not really understanding what was going on but loving it. So I was inspired by him, I guess.
And now you're at the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing alongside David...
Which I never thought I'd be at in my wildest dreams! I remember saying to my grandad when I was eight, "That's really where I want to be".
Getting the audition for the RSC, I sort of went, 'As if!' But it happened and we've been working exactly 12 months yesterday. And to have done three plays in that amount of time has just been amazing.
It's your first season at the RSC. What's it been like performing in three shows?
It's kind of wonderful, because you can't take stock or think too much. You just go onto the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
And they all begin to influence each other. When you're rehearsing one play during the day and then doing another play or two other plays in the evenings of that week, similar themes and thoughts start to recur.
And that keeps the plays always new. You're never thinking the same things each night, because you're constantly being stimulated with new ideas.
Have you noticed any similarities between the characters you play?
I think the similarities of all three women are that they're silenced. I've thought a lot about that and the ways in which they're silenced.
Lavinia is obviously silenced physically. Portia is silenced by her husband, not letting her into his world. And Virgilia again isn't listened to by her husband. She wants him to not go to war, not try and be consul, and she begs him to come back. And when he does, that's his demise.
And how do these characters differ?
The real difference with Lavinia is that she's just a kid. She's angry and she's a rebel. I found that really exciting, quite early into rehearsals. The first thing she does is go against her father's intentions for her to marry Saturninus.
There's an edge and a rage to Lavinia, whereas Portia is much more stoic (she's learned from her father, Cato the great stoic). And I think Virgilia is just madly in love with Coriolanus, and that's what drives her.
So I think those are the key differences: the rage of Lavinia, the stoicism of Portia, and the passion of Virgilia.
What was it like to bring those shows before audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
It's weird. When you sit in the auditorium, it feels very round and big. But when you're on that stage, it just feels very intimate.
You just feel very comfortable there. I like thinking of it as a room as opposed to a theatre, because it really feels like you're just talking in a room where everyone can see all sides of you.
That intimacy works so well, particularly with Titus.
Yes. And there's a moment in the show where I have to get out of the eyeline of Aaron. And because the voms [gangway] are so long, I couldn't run off, so I jumped down off the stage and into the audience.
It's during the scene where Titus is having his hand cut off. So I'm wholly with everyone in that moment: we are all seeing this thing happen and we are all holding our breath together. There's no differentiation between those on stage and those in the audience.
There really is no barrier between audience and actor, which proves really effective and affecting with the rape of Lavinia.
Exactly. And you never know who has been affected by sexual assault in the audience. And there's always a moment when Lavinia is brought out and revealed. And you do sense a reaction and often we have women leaving. It is an incredibly harrowing thing to witness, but it is amazing to see the effect.
And that was a thing for our director Blanche McIntyre: she wanted it to be as realistic as physically possible. She didn't want it to be muted or symbolic; she wanted it to be visceral.
When we first did that scene in the rehearsal room where Marcus discovers Lavinia, we'd talked through what costume we wanted Lavinia to still be wearing. Blanche was wonderful in asking what I thought, and we wanted to be as clear as possible with the makeup and the bruising.
And so she said, "Look, we're going to close the rehearsal room. But would it be all right if we tried it and you kept your boots on?" Because realistically, I think that that's what would have happened. And I just went, "Oh God, that's awful. No, I don't think we should do that". But she was like, "Just trust me".
So we closed the rehearsal room and it was just me and Blanche and Patrick Drury, who plays Marcus. And we did it with the costumes and I thought I'd be fine. I'd put my mask up the whole day, you know like, "Oh, I'm going to be absolutely fine doing this scene".
But there's something about the realism of having your boots around your ankles and your trousers around your ankles. I don't think I've cried that much in years. I just completely went. And I think that that's what's so amazing about that scene: we're not shying away from anything, but also we're not making it look pretty. It's just real.
And to a modern audience, seeing it in modern dress, it feels so real. When Marcus tries to pick her up and touches her, you could almost feel every woman in the room flinch.
Absolutely. And the whole play is men not knowing how to deal with this woman. And Lavinia doesn't have any women in her life, she's never had. We imagine her mother's died quite young.
So she has to then deal with all these men not knowing how to deal with it. And she of course doesn't want to be touched, but they can't process that. And I think that's sort of the tragedy of it: this is something she as a woman has to deal with on her own.
It's your first time performing at the Barbican. Did you have any expectations about the space?
I think the expectation is that it will feel a bit presentational. But I'm finding that this works really beautifully in this space. There are a lot of things that are solved just by the fact that's it's in proscenium arch.
And with Titus especially, there is so much interaction with the audience, I thought that there'd be less of that in the Barbican. But we're finding that we can come through the audience, we can involve the audience as much as possible, and we can still open it out. I love this theatre, I think that it's a really magical space.
And in the transfer to the Barbican, the company has transferred too. What's it like to be part of this ensemble?
Honestly, I've never been so close to a group of people, and such a large group of people. Everyone is so talented and so kind and so passionate. They are completely wonderful, especially when we get onto the third play. Most people do two or three, so you've got such a shorthand of how people work.
And there's a sense of silliness and play amongst us. So when it got to Titus, even though the content is so difficult, there was still such joy in that rehearsal room. You know, making each other laugh when you could see someone was finding something difficult. There's such a sense of safety and support with them.
And does that laughter always stay off stage...?
Definitely not, and David is the worst for making me laugh on stage!
There's a lot of improvisation in Titus, and sometimes you have no idea what's coming next! Especially in the pie scene, he can just come out with anything. I can see Tom McCall [Lucius] and the minute David does anything unexpected, we both can't look at each other because we know we'll laugh!
Finally, why do you think these Histories still prove so relevant today?
You know, we started doing this before Brexit and just after Trump had been elected. And Julius Caesar is so about a dissatisfied populous. There's a manipulating, ruling elite persuading that dissatisfied populous that they have their best intentions at heart, which of course they don't. And this is something we're seeing in the news all the time: the masses rising up against and overthrowing.
And with Titus, I think it's incredibly potent for our times in terms of sexual violence and the misuse of the male power. Lavinia is very much a woman of our times, in terms of being silenced and her dignity taken away.
That's why people should come: they are amazing prisms through which to see our current world.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks