Susannah York plumbs Shakespeare


By Davida Singer

Explores the bard’s women and herself

How many films can you name starring smoky voiced, blond British icon, Susannah York? The list is daunting and runs the gamut from “Tom Jones”, “Jane Eyre” and “A Man for All Seasons” to “The Killing of Sister George”, “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” and an award-winning role in Robert Altman’s “Images.” Fresh out of London’s Royal Academy, York first appeared opposite Alec Guinness in “Loss of Innocence” in 1962, and has since had major roles in over 60 films and performed in scores of international theater productions, including “Wings of a Dove,” “A Singular Man,” “A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers,” “September Tide,” “Hedda Gabler” and “Man and Superman” with Peter O’Toole.

The credits and acclaim go on and on, and the good news is York has no intention of letting up. This week she brings her latest one-woman show, “The Loves of Shakespeare’s Women” to the Blue Heron Arts Center, following early summer runs in California and Michigan, and last year’s debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Last Monday, just after her arrival in Manhattan, York took some early morning tea – time to chat a bit about her love of Shakespeare, the new piece and reflections on her personal journey as an actor.

DS: What led you to create a show about Shakespeare?

SY: It began almost three years ago, after there had been talk in England of dropping Shakespeare from the state school curriculum. I think Shakespeare is an incredibly important part of our education. I love literature and was terribly upset children would be deprived of him. There’s a kind of mystique about him – that he’s old-fashioned and obscure- because he’s so often badly taught. It seemed to me that if you taught Shakespeare with enthusiasm and by reading out loud, the beauty of his words and meaning comes through. What’s so wonderful about him is that the characters and situations in his plays are so relevant, not just for the English, and I wanted to help make him real and accessible.

DS: How did the women come into it?

SY: I’d done three one-person shows, starting with a translation of “The Human Voice”, and then something called “Picasso’s Women”, so there was a precedent. I had been thinking about John Gielgud’s one-man show, “The Ages of Man”, and how I could do the ages of women. I read my favorite plays of Shakespeare to get a wide variety, but I needed a theme. All the speeches I’d read by women, I realized, were about love in some form-enduring love, passing love, betrayal, family love, love in the abstract, like love of God, love of power, etc., so I began collecting characters and making some kind of order. Then friends pointed out that my choices were good, but where was I in all this, and I decided I had to talk a little about myself, and my relationship with Shakespeare. So it became quite a personal piece – my own voyage around the playwright and why I made the choices I did. For example, in this version, I’m using Juliet where I conjure up my first day of drama school.

DS: What kind of tech have you brought with you from England?

SY: There are some changes, but I’ve got my special unicorn tapestry, which is divided into three, and serves as a backdrop. It seems to me to be a perfect connector of the women, and also gives a sense of history. The costumes are white for the young girls and red for the older characters, and the clothing should evoke past into present. I’ve also brought a bit of Shakespearean music for the middle of the show, when I’m taking a change break.

DS: Do you think there’s a special relevance for Shakespeare right now?

SY: Yes, in so many ways, his ideas about love are timeless, and I hope people will feel they must read him. I always remember a teacher saying that people should leave the theater bigger than they were when they came in. I’d like them to sense that something new is touched on or illuminated, or that they are reminded of something they’ve forgotten. Or to feel like the kid at Edinburgh who said to me, ‘Shakespeare is really cool.’

DS: And has there been personal illumination in doing this show?

SY: It’s definitely a crisis of discovery Susan York for me as much as for the audience. The roots of why I’ve wanted to act involve personal curiosity about human beings and what goes on – to understand why and how. In this case, it’s about so many different kinds of women – different ages, personalities. One of my journeys in acting has been about becoming, so here I am becoming some of Shakespeare’s women, and sharing that with an audience. It’s always a leap in the dark. That’s the joy of acting in theater, that immediacy, that sense of danger. You never know exactly what’s going to happen, but hopefully you do land somewhere.