In Conversation with Myla Southward on Much Ado About Nothing
Myla is playing Beatrice in The Shakespeare Company’s and Hit & Myth’s Much Ado About Nothing, 17 May to 2 June 2018, under the direction of Jan Alexandra Smith, in The Studio, at Vertigo Theatre.
She is a TSC veteran who has appeared in Three Musketeers, Richard III, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, and most recently as Regan, the second daughter, in King Lear. She very generously agreed to answer our questions, in the third week of rehearsals for Much Ado. We asked her to help us get inside the world of the play, as an actor would. *
The Shakespeare Company: I’m really curious about what you’re finding, what you’re learning, about these characters, Beatrice and Benedick.
Myla Southward: I love this play! This is my favourite Shakespeare.
TSC: Why? A lot of people seem to really love this particular Shakespeare.
MS: I don’t know why they love it, but this is a very accessible Shakespeare. It’s in prose and it’s fun. I think if somebody wanted a nice gateway into Shakespeare, this play is a great one. Maybe that’s how it partly started for me – I felt like I understood it in my youth, and thus I enjoyed it. But as I studied it more, and grew up myself, I think that I personally, and as an actor, love the authenticity and characters, and I feel that Shakespeare has done a really great job of capturing the humanity of people in love and entertaining us in the process. This play feels very natural to me. Playing Beatrice feels very natural. And I think that when I watch it and when I do it, those are the things that draw me to it.
We are learning lots. I feel like Shakespeare is one of those things that you could do a million times, year after year, and you would just discover more and more, and pull back layers of the onion. Particularly with Bea and Ben, (Jan keeps calling us Bea and Ben, so I’m starting to do that too) I am learning how similar they are and how different they are, and I’m enjoying finding those differences and enjoying connection and similarities.
TSC: You mentioned Jan, the Director. Does she approach a text and rehearsals quite differently from how Seana McKenna [who directed TSC’s King Lear, in March] does?
MS: Oh, yeah! Absolutely! Everyone has their own style, and they’re very different. They’re both brilliant women, in their own right. And they’re both actors! Some directors don’t act. But they’re both actors, and I think they feel the characters and the situations, and bring that as directors. Certainly, I think Seana, coming from so many seasons at Stratford and so much classical theatre experience, is very text based. And I felt like we spent a lot more time at the table looking at text. The process stemmed out of the text with her. Jan is really my kind of director, in the sense that she really lets us find it on our own, get up on our feet and feel and play, and find it in our bodies, and then continually go back and check it with the text, to make sure what we are doing connects with what Shakespeare was trying to say. But it’s been a more organic process; whereas, I felt like with Seana it was more intellectual.
TSC: How many days of tablework did you do with Jan? Did you have a couple of days?
MS: Yeah, a couple. I think it was a day or two.
TSC: And with Seana it was longer?
MS: Yes, I think it was 2.5 or 3 days. She had just come off of playing Lear, so, clearly, she had an excellent understanding of it. And she’s just an incredibly smart, experienced woman, so she had a lot to offer, text-wise. As does Jan.
TSC: But, let’s get to Benedick and Beatrice…
MS: One of the things that I was interested in is how they are connected. They share a past. They’ve had a past relationship. They’re both very witty. They’re both expressive. They both love words. They both are very well liked by their peers. They are both protecting themselves, I think. Yet, at the same time they are very different. And obviously Tyrell Crews brings his own wonderful Benedick, and I bring my own Beatrice. His Benedick is very expressive, very charming and fun, and those thoughts and emotions are expressed more outwardly. I think my Beatrice tends to be more inward, and to herself. Then we get opportunities to come together, and sparks fly.
TSC: What do you think they are protecting themselves from?
MS: Oh, hurt. Clearly, they had a past relationship. Bea talks about her having lost the heart of Signor Benedick, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while, and I gave him good use for it. A double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore, your grace may well say I have lost it.” Something happened. It ended. Whatever the reasons, whatever the backstory is, there’s a lot of hurt and fear. And I know, at least for Beatrice, that you protect yourself when you are around that person you love but have been hurt. I was going to say that that is the other thing they share, they both do love each other; but, they’re both working very hard, to protect themselves, and not admit to that.
Yeah, the joys of men and women in love. I love how Shakespeare wrote this so long ago, and he’s a man, but he captures the hurt of a woman in love very well and it still all rings true today.
TSC: Do you get the feeling that you are really getting to know Beatrice, or that there is some level at which you just can’t capture her?
MS: I think you could do this role over and over again, and just discover more and more. At the same time, Beatrice feels familiar to me, she is a feisty woman, who knows how to speak her mind as well. She is a reactive person. She’s the life of the party. People love her. She is described as very merry, and very social. I can appreciate that. But just because somebody is expressive, extroverted, and part of the community, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting all of who they are. I think they protect parts of that, and I know for sure that Beatrice does.
When I want to understand a character sometimes I wish there were more scenes! I mean you only get so many scenes to get to know your character and get to interact with other characters, and so you do sort of have to answer questions for yourself. But I feel like I get her. I’ve been hurt before. I’ve been in love. I’ve experienced those things, and I also know what it is, out of your hurt, to try and cover that up with words or humour. So, I feel like there are parts of her that I can understand and reach, and there are probably parts of her that I will never get.
TSC: What would you make of the critic Harold Bloom’s sceptical view of Beatrice and Benedick, as very pleasant nihilists? Their dance is not so much a means to protect themselves from someone else, but to protect themselves from the meaninglessness of life that they sense. Their reticence about love is because they are reticent about curbing their power, which is all they have in a purposeless world. Accordingly, the Nothing in the title Much Ado About Nothing points to their nihilism. Does that seem in any way plausible?
MS: I don’t see that or feel that. And, how does he justify when they do come to love each other? It would be impossible to play as an actor, so I can’t afford to think like that. You have to make a choice you can play. You have to play a human being, not an idea.
TSC: I don’t think that he elaborates that too greatly, beyond the power game continuing; but, your question does get to the essence of the matter. Do they really love each other? Do you think so?
TSC: What do you think love means between these two?
MS: Everything! My take on it would be that sometimes the person who looks like they care the least cares the most. They’re trying to make it look like it doesn’t matter. And that they don’t believe in love or marriage. They are both pretending that it all doesn’t bother them, and that they are not hurt. But truly, deep down, they are the ones who care the most. They love the most. They feel the most. And it does matter. And I think that’s what’s going on with Ben and Bea. But, the reality is that they’re hiding it the most. And I think the family see that, which is partly why they take such delight in trying to bring us together. Because everyone else in the room can see how much we love each other, but we’re not letting ourselves live that.
TSC: Would be fair to say then that they are idealists? When you say that they are the ones who care the most, it sounds like they may have an ideal of love.
MS: Yeah, I think that’s great. I think you’ve nailed it on the head, that they are idealists in that sense. Ben has this whole speech describing the perfect woman, and this ideal love situation, and that I’ll never love unless she’s like this or that. Hmmm… that’s an interesting comment, and I hadn’t thought of it, and I think that’s right, that they are idealists. And maybe that’s why they were so hurt in the first place, that life doesn’t always give you what you pictured and what you want. Yet, you will miss out on everything, if you’re not willing to be vulnerable and give.
TSC: Is that then the Nothing in the title? Is it that Bea’s and Ben’s idealist vision amounts to nothing, in the end? Because it’s not reality. But they do come to reality… don’t you think?
MS: I do think so. And I can buy into that more easily, understanding the human nature of wanting something to be a certain way. The disappointment, the hurt, and then finding your way back. And then understanding, in their monologues of change, that maybe that means nothing. If you’re going to reject love and let hurt remain, then you will have nothing. So, unless you let go and accept, perhaps you will never love.
I wanted to mention, too, about the Nothing in the title… we were having a discussion; the word noting is very similar to the word nothing. And there is a thought that perhaps the title has transitioned over time from Much Ado About Noting. Noting meaning eavesdropping, or overhearing people, and that in Shakespeare’s time it was a play about these encounters and that so much of the play comes from that. There are the scenes where the family members are trying to trick Bea and Ben into believing that the other one loves them, by contriving for them to overhear planned conversations. The whole situation with Hero, where they are trying to set up that she was with another man falls into this as well. I had never heard of that before, but it would make a lot of sense, because through ‘noting’ the play’s hilarity and action comes to pass.
TSC: That’s an interesting take on it, too. Returning to how you see Beatrice, what about that line said about her by Leonato, that she says she often has terrible dreams, but wakes herself by laughing? What does that say about her?
MS: She is often described in the play as a very merry soul. She was born under a dancing star. And even when she has a bad dream, she starts every day new. I think she is full of life and light. And this hurt is there, and she is dealing with that, but she doesn’t let that go into every part of her life.
She’s happy. She’s contributing. She loves her family. She’s full of energy. Someone who is full of light and life… I think they do find love in the end. She’s not so cold that she has shut herself off and will never let herself love, or never let him love her. She was able, even in pain or fear, to find forgiveness and reason to love again, which I think is a very rare human characteristic. Once you’ve been hurt, it’s easy to hold on to hurt. It’s harder and more life-giving to forgive and live in love.
TSC: I raise that line, because Bloom focuses on it, in seeing her as a nihilist. But, if I understand you correctly, whereas he seems to see her forced awakening as a contrived and unsuccessful attempt to banish darkness, which keeps returning to her in her unguarded moments at night, you see her self-awakening with laughter as successful and life affirming.
MS: Right, and she’s still very much aware of the spectrum of human emotions, and what you’re going to let rule life, and your day to day.
TSC: And how do you see Beatrice in relation to Rosalind, in As You Like It? Given that you played Rosalind’s cousin Celia in TSC’s 2015 production, you have an intimate knowledge of Rosalind.
MS: Well they are very similar, in that they’re both very strong female characters and they’re great to play. But I think the difference is that Beatrice is a bolder character than Rosalind, because Rosalind under the guise of being a man, could get away with a certain amount, just because she was being a man. But Beatrice remains a woman in a time when it’s not easy for a woman to speak her mind. For a woman to stand up, hold her own with the men, it was not common, not as accepted, and so she really stands out. She’s a much braver character, for remaining a woman, and what she was able to get away with, than what you can get away with under the guise of being a man.
Even in society today, you know there are some women who make it in life because they are playing the game the way the men play it. But there are some women who are strong enough to remain themselves, and play by their own rules and still succeed. So, I think she’s that type of character, and I love playing her.
TSC: Is there something else in the play, aside from Beatrice and Benedick, that particularly puzzles you?
MS: The character of Don John. What’s this guy’s problem? It’s funny to put this unrepentant man smack dab in the middle of this humorous, witty, bright sort of play. I don’t get him, and I don’t know that we are given the answers as to why he is so miserable and why he wants to do what he does. I find that character’s reasons and motives puzzling.
TSC: Perhaps Don John represents the potentially darker side of that one-upmanship that is constantly taking place in the language among the men, that Beatrice shares in?
MS: Yes, you’re right, humour can have a dark side and a light side, and it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. When you stage a show like this, you have to distinguish the authentic from the entertaining and not let one dictate over the other. Jan is doing an amazing job of this I think. When
are the moments that are true? And when can we take a moment to play humour, or to stage a fun Lazzi? Because there is a lot of potential in this show to entertain.
TSC: Lazzi? What is that?
MS: They are physical comedy bits that actors play. I believe it began as a part of Commedia dell’Arte.
TSCC: Do you have any thoughts about why there’s so much focus on cuckoldry throughout the play, right from beginning to end? Why are the men so concerned about being cheated on?
MS: No, that’s not something I’ve explored. I don’t know if that speaks to male insecurity. One thing that I am aware of in this play, and I don’t know if it relates to your question, but I often feel like Beatrice is on the offence, and Benedick is on the defence. And I don’t know if there is a statement being made about men defending their actions… maybe the lengths men go to defend their actions, which aren’t always defendable. It’s interesting, even the lyrics to Hey Nonny Nonny, which is this happy song, but it says “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever. One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.” And you know they’re coming back from war. Maybe it’s speaking to the time or being soldiers… I’m not sure.
TSC: So, put in hockey terms…
MS: As one does, with theatre!
“Every time I do Shakespeare it reminds me that he was a genius.”
TSC: Is it fair to say that Benedick is not getting the puck out over his own blue line? And for Beatrice, the best defence is a good offence?
MS: Yes, that’s exactly right! Precisely! Maybe all we needed to do [to understand the play] was go see a good hockey game.
TSC: Now, in closing….You are getting a chance to do your favourite Shakespeare play, and you are playing the central role. Is it changing the way that you see anything about theatre, or Shakespeare?
MS: Every time I do Shakespeare it reminds me that he was a genius. Where are the Shakespeares of today? I feel like he was thinking on so many levels. You are heading down one path, but there are infinite other moments, and it feels like he saw them all, like a Mozart, who can hear every note of all the instruments in the orchestra at once. I feel like he is the Mozart of human connection and emotion.
But also, one thing this play reminds me of, is that love is not a word, it is an action. Beatrice is constantly saying things like, “Do not swear. I do not want a man to swear he loves me. Do not swear you love me. Use your love in some other way than swearing by it. That men are turned into tongues, and trim ones too. He is as valiant as Hercules who only tells a lie and swears it.” I feel like Beatrice (Shakespeare) is trying to say love is an action. And in the play when Benedick finally agrees to challenge Claudio, that is a turning moment for her. He is willing not only to say that he loves her, but to show her in action that he loves her.
Working on this show, has reminded me of that, in my own life. And I think that in our day and age of texting and whatnot, it’s very important to be reminded of real connection and action.
TSC: We are back to Cordelia: love and be silent.
MS: I always feel really lucky to have someone like Shakespeare challenging my mind and my life, because you do walk away thinking about how it challenges your own life. So, I feel like I have learned a great deal.
TSC: Lastly, whether there is any book or experience you have had that has particularly helped you to open up Shakespeare?
MS: Lexicons, where you can look up any word, are always so helpful. But, honestly, what I mostly do is surround myself with people, directors and actors, who know so much more than I do, about the text, and from whom I can learn. These texts are so rich that you need a community to help you understand them. Each of us approaches it from a different perspective, and I’m so lucky to have others to work with. I am but one small person, and I recognise my limitations. And I am eternally grateful for this great group of people that I get to work with on this show, and all the teachers I have had along the way.
* Conversation led by William French, a member of the Board of Directors of The Shakespeare Company. Tuesday 8 May 2018