It's every ex-drama school student's dream — landing a lead role at Shakespeare's Globe. But for 26-year-old Michael Brown, it was a role with a difference, as Theatrenow discovered.
When you auditioned to join the company at Shakespeare's Globe, were you already aware you were up for a female part?: "Yes, they made it clear they were interested in me to play Viola, so I knew what I was letting myself in for!"
Thanks to Tom Stoppard's "Shakespeare in Love" and Nicholas Wright's Cressida, audiences are far more aware than they used to be that until the Restoration in 1660, girls parts were played by boys. But what research did you have to do? "I went to the National Portrait Gallery to look at the paintings, and try to get an idea of how women of that age and class held themselves, the image they projected. And I did a certain amount of reading around the subject, but I don't think there's a specific book on it."
What, for you, is the most important consideration in playing a female role in this Shakespearean manner?: "Well, I have quite a light voice anyway, which is one reason I was cast, and I think it's important to keep the voice light but realistic — it would be ridiculous to try to play it in some sort of falsetto. Movement is important, too, and an overall impression of femininity. "Playing Viola in Twelfth Night means I'm a boy playing a girl pretending to be a boy, so there are opportunities to play rather more masculine, though it has to be through the prism of a girl's approach to what being a boy is like, and that again requires a relatively subtle approach — there's no point adopting ludicrously masculine poses, a sort of caricature, as that isn't something someone seriously trying to pass themselves off as a boy would do."
How do you find the experience of playing at Shakespeare's Globe?: "It's an amazing experience, and I'll always remember when I first stood on the stage there! It requires an acting style that's very specific to the space. You've got to reach all the sections of the auditorium, which is almost in the round, and although the acoustics are great, you have to be aware that it's harder for people to hear you when you have their back to them."
What about hearing you when there's an aircraft flying overhead? "That can be difficult as you can't joke about it or make any sort of comment to the audience, as that would shatter the whole Shakespearean illusion. You just have to speak up. Actually, planes aren't the worse thing — helicopters are. We had one the other day that didn't so much fly over as hover around us! That's one reason why warming up the voice before the show starts is so important in a space like the Globe."
And the proximity of the audiences? "That took a bit of getting used to, especially the groundlings being so close to the stage, and by definition, because it's summer and daylight, you can see all the audience in a way you can't in a conventional theatre production where the auditorium is dark and the lights are in your eyes.
"Actually the oddest thing regarding acting and audiences at the Globe is when it rains. Groundlings can wear special transparent macs, and when it rains heavily, the noise that the rain makes on the plastic macs is incredible!"
Rain or shine, Michael Brown can be seen in Twelfth Night (and later, in The Golden Ass — "I don't know what part I'm playing yet — hopefully a man!") during the rest of the 2002 season at the Globe.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow