One of my most cherished theatrical memories is of attending, years ago, Ian McKellen's one-man Shakespeare show, embedding speeches from a variety of plays in a script embodying his own thoughts about the works. Last night I got to see another one like that, at Stanford.
This was with Robin Goodrin Nordli, a longtime stalwart in the shifting company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and consequently an old familiar face to me. The title of the show, "Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare's Women," turns out to mean less a discussion of what the female characters mean and their part in the work, though there is some of that, than an account of her personal experience playing them. It's told in an autobiographical manner, not in the bald terms of a resumé, including even mention of the hiatus when her first husband guilt-tripped her off the stage for six years.
The "virgin to villain" theme was embodied in a long consideration of Queen Margaret, whose complex and varied life story is told across the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy. Nordli seems to consider this the greatest Shakespeare role she's played, and I'd say she was outstanding in it: I wrote of H6/3 at the time that "Robin Nordli spits fire as the toweringly bellicose Queen Margaret." And she said that, no matter how villainous the character may seem, no matter who you play - from Margaret to Hedda Gabler - you'll view sympathetically through her eyes. Nordli sees acting, and she clarified this in the Q&A afterwards, as being down in the trenches doing the hard work. She has no sense of the broad overview of the production.
It wasn't just serious: she depicted her failures as well as her successes, to great audience amusement. Her attempt, off in Oklahoma in college, to play Helena in the local accent; her disastrous audition, returning to the stage after her long exile, of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech with large hand gestures; and the time she played Desdemona in an outdoor festival, and while lying there dead [other actors have told me that can be the hardest part of a performance], a swarm of flies settled on her face. For this she depicted not her own part, but that of her Othello, trying to emote over her body and shoo flies at the same time.
What she learned from that disastrously over-acted audition was the truth of what her high-school drama teacher had told her: don't "act", just say the lines and behave like you mean them. That was rule one; rule two was: pay attention to what other characters say about your character; it's a guide to interpretation. (This in response to young Robin's attempt to act Ophelia's mad scene as if "mad" meant "angry". What happened to "gentle Ophelia"?)
There were a couple of odd glitches. She mentioned Dame Judith Anderson and called her "Edith". She kept referring to the rebellious Duke of York in the H6 plays as "Gloucester". There's two Gloucesters in the tetralogy, and neither of them is him, so I was very confused.
In the Q&A, she responded to the authorship question by describing herself as agnostic, though she didn't use that word. Her skepticism arises not directly from the supposed paucity of information about Shakespeare of Stratford, but from how much less is known about him than other playwrights of the period. And I wondered, is that true? I didn't think it was, but I'm not expert on that point.
And the future? In high school, she'd seen the then aged 73 Dame Edith, I mean Judith, in her tour-de-force of playing Hamlet, and maybe some day ... In the meantime, she's playing Gertrude (a new role for her) at Ashland next year, and her present husband, whom she met at OSF, will be Claudius. I'm not currently scheduled to see that, but I may make a second trip again next year.