Interviews - Sarah Whitehouse

Sarah Whitehouse
Role: Praxilla of Sicyon

What's the best Shakespeare production you've ever seen?

While I was at school, I saw a production of "Hamlet" at the Birmingham Rep. It was just really cleverly staged, with lights coming up through the floor instead of walls, so the ghost literally walked through the walls of the castle, which was really exciting. I was doing my A-levels and studying the play at the time, and I had no idea that that sort of surprise was coming. It made me realise how amazing and magical theatre could be, and set me on this road to a love of Shakespeare.

You're one of the only cast members who's done Shakespeare on film before. How does acting Shakespeare on stage differ to what we have to do on film?

The thing that spring immediately to mind: on stage there is a lot of movement. With Shakespeare, there can be a lot of crowd scenes, which can get a bit chaotic but that works brilliantly on stage because it keeps people's attention. On film, the cameras are going to be in a very specific place and doing a particular movement, so there must be more precise, smaller movements. In terms of what we do as actors, the techniques you use to unlock Shakespeare; focusing on verse, focusing on text, finding out what we're saying and why we say it, that all stays very much the same, perhaps everything gets just a little bit stiller.

You're also one of the most prolific cast members in terms of experience in Shakespeare; of the roles you've done which one would have like to do again?

There's quite a few. It's one of those things when you finish a production you go "oh gosh I've got an idea I want to do this again so I can try something new." In terms of ones where I think I could have done it completely different, I think Viola (from "Twelfth Night"). I'd like another go at Viola. I want to bring out more of the comedy with her, I think I went a bit serious when I did that. And in terms of sheer enjoyment, I'd like to play Queen Elizabeth again (from "Richard III"). She's amazing. She's so strong and feisty and just.... ohhh she's just glorious. I would like to have another crack at her just for the fun of it.

Did you have any experience with "Timon of Athens" before this production?

Absolutely not. I'd never read the play before (I got) the audition. I was aware of the Moliere take of it, which is "the Misanthrope", not quite the same but a similar idea. I tried to get tickets for a production of "Timon of Athens" in Stratford-Upon-Avon over Christmas, which I was desperate to see. And that had a woman playing Timon, incidentally. Which I thought was very interesting, a very interesting take on it.

Well on that subject of a female Timon, how do find the role of women in Shakespeare, and more specifically in this production?

That's a fantastic question because he wrote some absolutely brilliant women, some of my favourite characters in theatre are his women. Whenever I'm asked to play Shakespeare I instantly jump at the chance because they are just the best; his women are so beautifully complex, just glorious. They do come with their problems. There are issues related to the time it was written. The thing is there are so few women in each play, he only wrote a certain number related to the fact women were always played by boys or young men because it was illegal for women to appear on stage at the time. And as a result there are far more roles for men in Shakespeare... which is understandable.

In terms of our production: the play "Timon of Athens" is quite limited in terms of women's role. It's a typical army story, military men, a bit similar to "Othello", "Julius Caesar"; they're very light on the women front because it's all about the army, all about the men, about the politics, the usage of money. Within the terms of our story we're going back to Ancient Greece, we just buy into the world that was created there. And it was rubbish for women. And we just have to live with that. What's wonderful about our production is Maximianno has not only expanded the two female roles that were in the original text, but he's created my role, to give that female balance. Which is hugely exciting.

Maximianno has often said you are the nine Muses in one, do you feel your interactions take on a rather ritualistic relation within the play?

Praxilla of Sicyon is very much part of the ceremonies, she almost conducts the ceremonies, she's the beginning of all of it. And so her interactions with Timon definitely do take on a ritualistic element. It depends on the character. The only times she performs is for Timon, it's not necessarily for the rest of the room. She's almost a mouthpiece for the deity element (like you say), she talks to the Muses, to Fate and Aphrodite and all these godly figures. Timon's hotline to the gods, I suppose. (laughs). She's a very calm character. We've been talking a lot in rehearsals about having three Praxillas: the poetess, the muse (or the nine muses) and the human woman. These three elements of her. The supernatural and the realism. And she definitely provides a female present in the court, there are very few women in the play, very little female influence. In our production Praxilla is not necessary the feminine side to Timon, but she does provide that balance.

How do you feel about your role? Do you like your character? Was it easy to relate to your character's motives and intentions?

I'm very lucky actually because this character is an amalgamation of various different characters, literary characters, one of whom exists in the play, as the poet. Praxilla of Sicyon existed of course, she was a writer, I believe, an Ancient Greek writer, but in terms of the original play she doesn't exist, she's a new character that's been created for this feminine element. What a fantastic chance to bring a bit of balance to this male army world, this Parliament court that Timon has around him. A lot of my experience in classic theatre has been with Shakespeare and Jacobean script; and the text (in our production) is not just Shakespeare. I'm performing parts of Sappho (with Greek text), I'm doing various sonnets as well the Shakespeare and incorporating that all together in a narrative, keeping the verse, keeping the rhyme going, making sure it doesn't sound like I'm suddenly breaking off and going into Ancient Greek poetry... is a challenge. But in terms of a character I'm very lucky to be creating this character for the first time, without the constraints of what another actress did before me.

Before you go, we must, must talk about the role of music to Praxilla.

(laughs) Ah yes. Another challenge has been with the music as well. I'm playing a cithara, which is an early per-cursor of the guitar. There are very few in existence, and I believe we're having one made for this production. I'm also playing the pan-flutes. I did do a bit of guitar when I was a kid and I even tried to teach myself the violin once (laughs). Playing a Muse who is all about music is... quite challenging, because I have to look musical. So that's my focus at the moment.

Cithara. Pan-flutes. And of course... the harp?

Well the Cithara is the harp. And I have to say I picked up the (practice) harp today and it stabbed me through the thumb, so I am a little bit nervous of it. It's got some very sharp bits to it. What's wonderful is the music that I will be playing has already been written, scored and recorded by Maximianno, and will be played over the film, after the edit. So as long as I look like I know what I'm doing as this Muse, we'll be fine.

And lastly what do you take away from the story of "Timon of Athens"?

There's loads of parallels with the current economic and political climate. And just modern society, particular for us here in the UK, we're quite mercenary. Technology is king. Everyone must have the latest phone, the latest laptops, the latest commodities. We're so obsessed with disposable consumer society. You can see why Timon loses it, really; because if you do realise everyone around you just wants you for your money, and your wealth and success. I suppose nowadays we'd equate it with success popularity, social media, fame fortune. I'm thinking footballers, movie stars and things like that. They don't see you for who you are, of course you're going to get fed up and get depressed and lose all faith in humanity and society. I feel for him. I can see it, I can see it in modern life.