Patsy just knew she had to accept the role of Portia, an opportunity at the RSC not to be missed. But she worried that she might be doomed. After all Judi Dench, at the close of the Poetry Festival last year, had cautioned actors: “Don’t touch Portia”, having found it an impossibly difficult role.
But it was such a compliment to be asked and having worked successfully at the National Theatre with the director, Polly Findlay, she could trust her judgement.
Born in Valencia to Spanish parents - her mother is from there and her father from Barcelona - she came to live in England with her family when she was quite small so her education was wholly English. She attended a convent school in Weybridge where she first encountered Shakespeare, playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in Year 10.
She describes a pivotal moment in her life just before this. In Year 9 she had to choose between doing Drama and Latin and she had chosen Latin which she had then put down as one of her GCSE subjects in Year 10. On the last day of term a friend told her that the drama teacher was really disappointed and the very idea of this made her go to the school office and plead to change her options. It was a gut reaction but one that she was right for her.
She did Drama and Theatre Studies as one of her A Levels and studied Drama at Birmingham University where she loved the course and “enjoyed being a geek”. Acting, she says, is a way of staying a student: “an actor is an eternal student.”
She was then accepted at RADA. There, she says, you stay within the safety of its walls for two years before your final showcase year. But she had experienced playing Olivia in a touring production of Twelfth Night taken out to schools which she had enjoyed.
In her final year, 2014, Patsy was taken on by an agent to play in the West End production of Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury. Then she experienced the big space of Olivier Theatre cast as Jim in Polly Findlay’s Treasure Island at the National Theatre. Her stage presence was noted by critics, how you just had to watch her face .She had been named the most promising newcomer in the Critics Circle Theatre Awards and Susannah Clap in The Observer said “she is one of the best young actors I have seen in a decade,”
Coming to the RSC
Polly told her “ I don’t want a ready-made Portia” and Patsy sensed Polly found a vulnerability in her character. This challenged her assumptions about Portia and as Jamie Ballard’s merchant developed and it was decided that Antonio and Bassanio were lovers it opened out the possibilities for her portrayal of Portia.
“This is a play about contracts that cannot be broken,” she says, Portia believes herself to be in a romantic comedy but then as the relationship between her husband and Bassanio becomes apparent to her, her world unravels.
“That kiss in the trial scene has a double red line under it for me,” she says. “It reveals that everything was a lie. My husband is a liar.”
Her own judgment, her naivety is revealed to her and she wants to make him suffer. She had gone to the court to save the situation but when she realises how she has been cheated she wants justice, revenge. The giving away of the ring, prompted by Antonio, is another betrayal and when she receives them in Belmont it is not to be taken lightly.
I point out that she too breaks a contract and she agrees. By cheating to get her man she acts against the spirit of her father’s wishes. And she suffers for it!
So why is she not more sympathetic towards Shylock? Initially she comes appealing to him to forget these religious divides. But then The Quality of Mercy speech becomes something of a time -filler as she thinks on her feet about her response to what she has just witnessed. She wants Bassanio and Antonio to be totally indebted to her and so exacts more from Shylock. Yes she is flawed, hypocritical here, Patsy admits, but this is a play about people behaving badly Polly Findlay believes.
Learning from Portia
So what has Patsy learnt here?
- You don’t have to do too much with Shakespeare. Relish the language, its muscularity. It’s powerful!
- Don’t try to add a sheen of emotion. Trust the language. Tell the story.
- An actor’s ego loves to hear the audience laugh and response infuses a performance with something extra but you mustn’t expect it.
- Don’t try to repeat a performance. Stay in the moment.
Patsy has given us a very different Portia, making the audience re-assess what they assumed about her. She continues her exploration of Shakespeare by going with Polly Findlay to the National Theatre to play Celia in As You Like It. She will no doubt relish Celia’s wit and her facial expression should really be worth watching.
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.