We spoke to Jessica Tovey about the complexities of playing not only a Shakespearean role, but his most honoured and nuanced female character, Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
As one of the arts correspondents for TBS and a lifelong lover of my boy Will, I was very excited to score an interview with Jessica Tovey, who’s playing Portia in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of The Merchant of Venice. One of Shakespeare’s most challenging works, the play’s themes include money, love, prejudice, mercy and more. The current production is yet another triumph for our very own home-grown Bardic company – Bell Shakespeare.
TBS: Of all Shakespeare’s women, Portia is possibly the most intelligent and in-control. She’s witty, clever, occasionally a bit intolerant, and of course, her “quality of mercy” speech is probably Shakespeare’s most famous speech after Hamlet’s soliloquy. So there’s enormous pressure on you to not only get it right, but put your own stamp on it. How do you prepare for a meaty role like Portia? How much harder is it to play Portia than other roles you’ve performed?
Jessica Tovey: Preparing for Portia was slightly different than most roles I’ve played, for several reasons. First, working with Shakespearian text involves a different kind of analysis than modern plays. Before I can do much else, I break down the rhythms of the speeches. This is really important first up because the language and the way a character speaks tell you a lot about who they are.
I read a lot about Portia; not so much other actors’ interpretations of the character but more critical analysis of those who’ve studied her and where they think Shakespeare drew inspiration from. I find understanding the history of when the play was written very useful. But it’s important to state that our production of The Merchant of Venice has a modern take. The director, Anne-Louise Sarks, has helped us craft human beings from this day and age. I’ve tried to soak up all that historical context but then find a fresh version of Portia: intelligent, witty but also privileged and someone who’s fighting for her own self-interest.
I wouldn’t say it’s harder to play Portia than other roles. The language has been challenging, but one I’ve relished.
I think it’s a stretch to say Shakespeare was a feminist but I would argue that in Portia it’s clear he was aware that women were as capable of intelligence and wit as men, even if they had to take on masculine roles in order to play out these sides of their personality.
Portia is morally bound by her late father’s order that any prospective husband must guess which of three caskets – gold, silver or lead – contains her portrait. The man who chooses correctly gets to marry her. It’s an odd way to find a husband, although Portia manages to manipulate her desired outcome. What does the scene mean? Is it the contrast between appearance and reality or more about women being treated as commodities? How do you generally feel about the women in Shakespeare’s works?
Without spoiling the production, it’s hard to answer all these questions because we have our own spin on the final casket scene with Bassanio. Certainly, Portia’s deeply frustrated that her father forced this game upon her future. I think historically it was more common for a woman to be bought and sold and it isn’t something we recognise in today’s western world. The fact that Portia rages against it so strongly in the text is a clue to audiences that this is an exceptional Elizabethan woman, one who wants to be master of her fortune.
I have mixed feelings about the women in Shakespeare’s work. Often I feel they’re underwritten or there to fuel the male storylines, but you could never say that in the case of Portia. I think it’s a stretch to say Shakespeare was a feminist but I would argue that in Portia it’s clear he was aware that women were as capable of intelligence and wit as men, even if they had to take on masculine roles in order to play out these sides of their personality.
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The Merchant of Venice is usually accused of being an anti-Semitic play because of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock the moneylender. Is that a fair assessment? How does this play out with modern audiences?
I’m not sure I’d say it’s an anti-Semitic play but there are certainly characters in the play who are anti-Semitic. MOV was written at a time when there were no Jewish people in London so it’s easy to see how stereotyping occurs in Shylock. It’s interesting because on one hand you have some very derogatory language used by the Christian characters to describe him and then you have the incredibly famous and beautifully written “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. It suggests, at least on some level, that Shakespeare recognised his humanity. With our version of the play, we’ve tried to take away any attempt to archetype the characters and dig deeper into why they act the way they do, given the world they inhabit. In the modern context, I think audiences will question how they view all these characters and re-think who is in the right and wrong.
What is it about Shakespeare that appeals to audiences even 400 years after his death? Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?
I think Shakespeare spoke about universal themes. His plays deal with the fundamental struggles we face in life but in such rich language and heightened realities that it’s very compelling to listen to even today. It’s hard to pick a favourite, especially when you’re working on one in particular because you dissect it in a way that I haven’t some of the others. My favourite, however, is probably Hamlet, the deep physiological/psychological struggle you see in that play is so rich and so human I think it sets it apart.
Influences and inspiration come from many varied sources. Even so, is there a particular actor or director who especially inspires you?
There isn’t one particular person who inspires me and to list them all would be very boring for your readers. I saw Richard the Third just before I started rehearsal and Kate Mulvany has always been an inspiration within the industry. Her work is so nuanced, technical but also so human. It was very inspiring to see her magical performance leading up to our rehearsals.
Finally, what’s next for Jessica Tovey?
After the MOV tour, I am going to have a long holiday in New York with my sisters who live there, spend some time with family and recharge. I have some more theatre lined up for next year back in Australia. I’m very excited for that and fingers crossed that it just keeps rolling on from there.