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An interview with a Queen Margaret

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In the three-play arc of Margaret, what was the biggest challenge for you as an actress?

[Long pause] I think that the biggest challenge in this role, specifically in Part 3, is finding her arc and making sure that she is not one thing all the time. It would be really easy, I think, to constantly be berating and screaming and not finding the levels of complexity with power. To be able to give it a dynamic performance, you need all of that there. And she has so much to say for big chunks of the play that I think that viciousness has got to be there, but there has to be levels to that. When does she know that she has the upper hand, when is she trying to show she has the upper hand even when she knows she doesn’t, when is she making the really hard choices for Henry? So, finding the arc was the most difficult thing.

There were a couple of performances where I felt—and I say that when we’ve only done it eight times or something—but there was one performance particularly where I felt I slipped into a later Margaret from the first scene. She obviously comes on with gusto. She comes on and she’s upset. But I feel like I had too much too fast, and it didn’t give me as much of a place to go later. So I really need to monitor those levels, making sure I’m not blowing my wad too early, because there’s a lot more that she has to do. Plus, that scene is only Exeter, her husband, and her son. It’s not a big courtroom scene. It’s more of a family drama at that point. So, understanding that, and finding that arc, was the most difficult thing. And it’s physically exhausting.

And Margaret’s all you did in that play.

Yes, except for a post, I play one messenger in 4.6 who comes on very briefly.

So, even though Margaret is in only four or five scenes?

Well, she’s got a little bit more than that, and you get a huge break in the middle after France. You get a huge break before you come back and it’s, “Hey, don’t give up in battle,” and then the death of your son. But the way that ending goes, giving this sort of “Hey, don’t hide your head in the sand” to the troops, and then watching your son die, and then cursing all these people who have killed your son, by the end of it I’m vocally tired. Physically tired. Sweating.

Plus you get your finger broken every night.

That’s true. [Margaret swoons, and to revive her, Hastings, played by Chris Johnston, breaks one of her fingers.] That was all Chris Johnston; got to give him credit for that. Edward says, “Use means for her recovery” and Johnston’s like, “What am I supposed to do? How about this?” And we’re like “That’ll work. [Laughs] Great! That’s a choice.”

There are actresses who have played Margaret in one day, one season, whatever. You were playing her over three seasons. You also did it in the Ren Season where you’re not looking ahead. Did that help, do you think, in your actual portrayal of Margaret?

I can’t say whether it helped or hurt but I think it just leaves it open, it leaves a world of opportunity. One of the biggest pitfalls I think as an actor is if you know someone’s a villain and you’re always playing them as a villain, that’s not nearly as interesting as showing the human side, showing the parts that are a little bit softer, showing the parts that can be a little bit more manipulative. If you’re always shoving it down the audience's throat, “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m a villain,” that gets boring really quickly. You can’t sustain that for that long. There has to be levels. And I think that is more interesting.

And not very many people are all one thing. You’re not all evil. People look at Margaret as vicious and evil; well, she is still a mother and she’s been loved and been a lover and she has good intentions. She’s not just saying, “Let’s screw with the Yorks for fun.” She actually believes that she and Henry have the line to the throne. And she’s not the only one. I mean, there are people on her side, as far as that goes.

So, I think [the three-Ren-season approach] leaves it open. I like the fact that I’m not looking so ahead, where I’m going, “Well, now I’ve got to set myself up for this,” and I’m just playing what’s there. I’m trying to play what’s there in the story and what Shakespeare’s given me and where she is. I think that more so than any other Shakespeare female, she’s on a journey because we get to see her in four different plays. That never happens. Certainly not with the women. It’s very rare. And she’s still alive at the end of Richard. She’s one of the few people who’s still alive; she still doesn’t die.

Shakespeare was probably trying to figure out how to get her into King John.
Yeah, right. “What can we have her wander into here?” [Laughs]

That’s what I like about the first scene that you’re in in 3 [she arrives, belatedly, after Henry has relinquished their son’s right to the throne]. Even when I was reading it, I was going, “Oooh, can’t wait to see Sarah do this one.” Because Margaret comes in there and I’ve just got to figure that audiences in Shakespeare’s time are going, “Here she comes.” It’s like Indiana Jones showing up in the second reel.

Yeah. And I made a semiconscious decision not to be in that final song in the preshow, the “Fathers and Sons” that Tyler [Moss, who played Warwick] sings. Everybody else is out there, but I’m not. I kind of wanted the first moment the audience sees me to be the first time they see Margaret. I know that technically I’m Sarah as the actress singing the song, but I really did feel like it would be kind of powerful.

Now, technically, we also needed someone to ring the bell back stage [during the preshow speech, when audiences are given a sample of the bell signaling the interval]. So I volunteered for that, because originally we were doing the preshow speech within that song. We ended up changing that, and then I just didn’t join into it when I could have because I kind of wanted that moment selfishly. I want the first time you see Margaret to be the first time that you see Margaret.

And we’ve had different audience reactions. Several times, the moment that I come on stage there’s laughter. The audience knows, “Oh, you’re in for it now. Somebody opened the cage and let her forth and it’s not going to be good for you.” And Henry knows that, too. He’s like, “I’ll follow you, Exeter,” and she says, “No, you won’t. I don’t know where you think you’re going.” [Laughs]

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