I think Measure for Measure has become my favourite Shakespeare play, with King Lear perhaps. It’s such an amazing piece for our time about power and the abuse of power and the lack of morality in those who govern and how being in a position of authority of government seems to licence people to abandon their morality. They think there’s one rule for them and one rule for everybody else and quite honestly in the world we’re living in now that seems patently true. There’s never been a more appropriate time for the play. And it was true then and this was 1984.
I had been in my ‘play as cast’, you know, years. I’d done ‘a nun’ and ‘a whore’ with Ruby Wax in Barry Kyle’s production of Measure for Measure with Paolo Dionisotti and Jonathan Pryce and Michael Pennington playing the Duke, in which we had stood as, you know, ‘whore number 1 and 2’ and ‘nun numbers 1 and 2’, night after night, month in month out, watching the play so I had got to know the play almost word for word. That was back in 1978 and ‘9, when I started. So I knew the role of Isabella well so when I was offered it by Adrian Noble I was over the moon because I longed to play it. I think I was ... I felt I really could get inside that woman.
I was very ... quite hot-headed, quite politicised. I think I would have, you know, liked to think I would die for a cause and there were many causes I felt strongly about, you know. And that’s what Isabella’s like. She’s very... you know, for somebody who’s gone into a nunnery, she’s extremely ardent, hot-headed. Quite hot-blooded. That’s presumably why she’s chosen the most severe form of nunnery available ... Saint Clare’s, which is very sort of hairshirt order to join, because she knows how much there is to suppress ... that needs to be suppressed in her, I think. So when, just at the point of joining, she’s pulled out by Lucia and says, “You’ve got to go and argue for your brother’s life.” She’s put in, immediately, to a very compromised position and then, of course, this extraordinary story unfolds ... of discovering that the very man who can free her brother is the man who’s trying to seduce her and use his power to exploit the situation.
So I just fell into that play and it was a wonderful production. I felt very strongly I did not want to play Isabella as a sort of frigid hysteric. Women heroines in Shakespeare... and this is something I feel very strongly about and have written a lot about ... are judged very, very severely by literary and theatrical tradition and they’re much more labelled and contained in these, sort of, stereotypical places than the male heroes are. You can do anything you like with Macbeth. You can make him very unsympathetic, very sympathetic. Women, as in life, are much more constrained by preconception and gender stereotyping and Isabella, who refuses to sleep with Angelo to save her brother’s life, has been judged by that decision as a sort of sexual hysteric, frigid, you know ... and when I read the play I thought ‘Well, this is crazy. Of course not.’ She is being asked to collude in an amoral, corrupt system, which if she colluded with, would be tainted for the rest of her life.
Now, she’s a Christian. I’m not but it doesn’t matter. I could imagine, you know, being asked to sacrifice my most profound ethical, moral principles. I would be in a desperate state about whether I could do that to save somebody’s life. So, rather than judge her for her sexual refusal in the play, let’s look at why she’s choosing to do that and when you see her arguments there’s nothing frigid about them. I mean, they’re very compassionate, full-blooded and I was so lucky to have Adrian Noble, who agreed with me and he didn’t want me to play her that way as well. So, it was just so liberating to sort of release this character from her traditional place.
And then I got obsessed with doing that. I really loved doing that. Lots of those heroines, you know, who needed to be sort of ... I don’t know. Revisited and reassessed in a light of ... also growing and thinking ... the Women’s Movement and feminism and all sorts of things were happening in the late-seventies and the eighties, which were also influencing me. One of them was to try and free women from this hideous stereotyping. So Isabella was a gift and one of this ... you know, to this day, one of the great sort of performance experiences of my life really.
[Extract from Oral History Interview, RSC, 16 March 2016]