Alexandra Gilbreath was first introduced to Shakespeare by her reception teacher - whom she lived with - when she was four or five. Her teacher had a passion for Shakespeare, and was committed to introducing it in the early years of primary school.
The Cul De Sac
As Alex comes to the end of her run as Angellica Bianca in Aphra Benn’s The Rover she confesses to feeling somewhat melancholic: “have I reached the end of my pathway in playing Shakespeare? Because, at a certain age you find yourself in a cul de sac.”
She has now played a number of major roles in Shakespeare, including (but not limited to): Hermione in Gregory Doran’s A Winter’s Tale (1998), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (2002) with David Tennant, Rosalind in As You Like It (2002), Kate in The Taming of the Shew (2003) and Olivia in Twelfth Night (2009). She has achieved praise for her work, and now – when she feels on top of her game – she finds herself questioning why there are no more female roles to play when you reach a certain age. She fully endorses Harriet Walter’s Letter to Shakespeare which appears at the end of her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines in which she points out how few mature female roles there are.
Working with Trevor Nunn recently she was delighted to hear him say that Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth would be beyond the scope of boy players. But whether we like it or not, Shakespeare has set up a profound inequality which is difficult to address.
Less is often more
"Without knowing all the answers, they are frequently wise," Alex says, talking about how much she has learnt from Shakespeare's women. "They tend to do the teaching;" she continues, "and they do not have a tragic flaw that sets off disaster either." That's why she grew to love Hermione's dignity, simplicity and self-affirming qualities. Less is often more, especially when advised by Andrew Wade from the RSC Voice Department on her opening lines in the trial scene:
'Since what I am to say must be but that
What contradicts my accusation' (Act 3, Scene 2)
Andrew told her that she had to rely on speaking the words rather than "acting them." That way it would reflect her simple honesty. The secret always lies in the words. She has met several fine practitioners at the RSC and says that the importance of words is a constant theme with all of them. Understand the words and then communicate your character's position to the audience.
Give me an audience and I'm engaged
When Alex played Juliet, Michael Boyd advised her to put her dilemma to the audience before she took the sleeping draught. It's what Greg Doran calls a crossroads in a character's progression. When she had the potion quickly, she could sense the audience's alarm - how they'd wanted her to consider it more. Michael would sometimes ask for a sentimentality check, so that you play the character you discover rather than the one the audience has come to expect.
Rehearsals can be claustrophobic for Alex. She needs the stage and the audience."Give me an audience, I slip into fifth gear and I'm engaged. My antennae come out immediately to pick up that inexplicable chemistry that is only present when the audience are there. I feel them warm as a collective. The experience is congregational."
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.