In her debut season at the RSC, Hannah has been thrown in at the deep end, taking on three significant roles in the Roman plays: Portia in Julius Caesar, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus and Virgilia in Coriolanus.
An inherited passion
How did she get here at the tender age of 24? She says her parents have been supportive but it was actually her grandfather, an amateur actor, who nurtured her love of theatre, taking her to lots of plays. He brought her to the RSC when she was just eight to see one of Shakespeare’s history plays and what was special for him became special for her. She joined the Young Actors Company in Cambridge and between the ages of 15 and 18 found herself in National Youth Theatre presentations of Shakespeare. She was chosen to perform in the National Theatre in Rep season and then went on to study at the Drama Centre in London. So, even before coming here, she had played a number of Shakespearean roles including Gertrude, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.
What is a wife?
Compared with these roles, the women in the Roman plays have little to say, except for Volumnia in Coriolanus. They can appear to be wives, daughters or mothers rather than voices in their own right. Hannah says how much she loves the Julius Caesar speech in which she confronts Brutus with that very question: What is a wife? Shakespeare has empowered her to claim that she should be central to his life, his thoughts. As Cato’s daughter, she can claim both rank and political education and knows when to be discrete. She refuses to be set aside to “the suburbs of his pleasure”. But Hannah says he does not tell her anything, maybe because in this production she is pregnant and he does not wish to implicate her. Nevertheless when she hears that cry from the Capitol, her woman’s instinct tells her all is not well. There is a strong sense of frustration that Lucius, a mere servant, can visit the Capitol but she as a woman is not allowed inside. And her suicide? She says that with the mob baying for her blood she takes responsibility for her own death, ending her life in the high Roman fashion.
Acting without words
As Lavinia, she is a daughter, but one not up for political barter: she marries the man she loves rather than doing what is expected of her. She taunts Tamora, vowing to expose her affair with Aaron, but is put to silence. Robbed of her voice, Hannah says she plays “numbness”, moving in a catatonic state until Titus insists on her carrying his severed hand while he bears her brothers’ heads. At this moment, she recovers a purpose in life.
The gracious silence of Virgilia is another lesson in acting without words. While she may not hold the same values as Coriolanus’ mother, the two actors were anxious to avoid playing the mother-in-law cliché. Her body language tells the story particularly well in the farewell scene where she stiffens before Coriolanus, unwilling to even touch him. How can he go into exile? She feels such anger, Hannah says. Yet when he approaches her a second time she accepts his embrace, knowing that this might be their last.
A different challenge
After playing these three noble women it was fun, Hannah says, to rise to the challenge of her understudy role as Junius Brutus, one of the trouble-maker tribunes who frustrates Coriolanus, voicing the demands of the people in the face of aristocratic stubbornness. Plenty of lines to learn, only four days of rehearsal, and then back on that stage with very different dynamics.
Hannah has shown an assured stage presence, a firm understanding of the strength of Shakespeare’s women and has had a wonderful time here “playing to play”.
ROME MMXVII plays at the Barbican Centre until 20 January 2018.
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.