As a character actor, Allan Armstrong can convey a wealth of meaning with a look. Which is fortunate, because he is often called upon to play some of Shakespeare's more incomprehensible roles like Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost.
Armstrong tackles the role of the pedantic school teacher for the third time this spring. In the current production playing at the Seattle Center, he spends most of this comedy discussing exactly the right phrase to use. So, of course, when asked about the appeal of this comedy and its characters, he has a wealth of words to share.
I understand that Love's Labour’s Lost at Oregon Shakespeare Festival hooked you on acting. Why that play?
In 1980 I was an engineer with Hewlett-Packard in the Bay Area. I had not done any acting, or even considered trying it. Up to that point, the only Shakespeare play I had seen was a 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production of Hamlet starring Richard Chamberlain. I found it absolutely captivating, though it did not provoke any desire to get on stage. But I had heard many good reports from friends about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and this piqued my interest in seeing Shakespeare performed live. The dazzling language of Love’s Labour’s Lost, spoken with striking clarity and obvious relish by that seasoned company of actors, and the larger-than-life characters of Armado and Berowne all produced a deep and lasting effect. I fell in love with Shakespeare during that performance. In the fall of that year, Santa Rosa Junior College cast a production of Twelfth Night, and I auditioned with a Shakespeare sonnet. To my amazement, I was cast in a small speaking role. My life would never return to anything resembling what it had been!
This is your third outing as Holofernes with Seattle Shakespeare. What’s the appeal of coming back to a character like this?
When years have gone by, you feel that you can bring new things to the part because of the life and stage experiences you’ve had since the last time you did it. The last time I did Holofernes was in 2005, so I’ve got nearly eight years of new experiences to inform my third attempt. Also, in the special case of Shakespeare characters, it is, in most cases, quite literally a different part each time you do it. The plays are nearly always cut differently for every production. So each time I’ve done Holofernes, the lines have been a little different. On this third go I use an English dialect, and I find that the Oxford-Cambridge accent makes the lines physically easier to speak than the American dialect I used in previous productions. It also allows me to use variations in pitch, as English people commonly do, to emphasize meaning and sentence structure for listeners, in a way that can’t be done nearly as much with an American dialect.
What's your favorite Holofernes' speech?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but his second rant about Armado in Act V, scene 1, is a strong contender. It begins with a terrific metaphor: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” Then he cites several examples of how Armado “mispronounces” certain English words that have silent consonants, such as “calf” and “neighbor,” when in fact Armado pronounces them correctly, while Holofernes pronounces the consonants because he treats these words as if they were Latin words, which don’t have silent consonants. Audiences have no trouble following this rant, and seem to find it pretty funny. These lines are a bit of an obstacle course to speak, also, which adds to the fun.
So what’s the trick of making this language geek a full-blooded, humorous character?
All of Shakespeare’s plays have words and references that are obscure or totally incomprehensible to modern audiences, and Holofernes’ lines have a higher than average proportion of these. How many people in a typical audience understand Latin, or are familiar with 15th Century Italian poets? Not many! So an actor undertaking this role has to first accept that much of what he says will not be comprehended. The key to making it humorous, I think, is to let the audience clearly see Holofernes’ pure, pompous delight in using long-winded English sentences full of Latin to show off his erudition to the other characters.
So even if we can’t understand him, he’s a character that is understandable?
My day job is writing and editing technical prose, which demands that I find the most accurate language to describe a thing. Holofernes is obsessed with finding exactly the right word or phrase to express his meaning, and so my own thought process when I’m engaged in technical writing matches his very closely; the similarity is both comfortable and a little frightening. However, Holofernes thinks this way out loud around other people, which I find really amusing. It’s a wonderful parody of a smart person who lives mostly in his head and finds pleasure exclusively in words and unbridled pedantry.
Seattle Shakespeare’s artistic director George Mount plays Holofernes' buddy Sir Nathaniel in this production. What’s the relationship between the two characters?
Most of all Holofernes wants to show off for his best---and probably only---friend, Sir Nathaniel, who knows Latin and can therefore understand him most of the time. Nathaniel is also a gratifyingly appreciative audience for him.
I know you have a long history together, but now that George is in charge of the company, do you let him steal a bit more of the spotlight?
That question makes me laugh! George is a terrific actor with lots more acting experience than I have, and he can steal the spotlight whenever he wants to, without any help from me--- especially when playing the hilariously eccentric Sir Nathaniel! But George is an ensemble actor, not a selfish one, and so he never upstages other actors---well, hardly ever! And it’s very clear to his fellow cast members that he does not want to be treated differently because of his position with the company, so they don’t.
Love's Labour's Lost plays through April 7. For more information, see Seattle Shakespeare's website.