On Shakespeare and Your Magical Self—Madeleine Hyland, Actors From The London Stage

William Shakespeare

Episode Notes

Madeleine Hyland is an actress, singer, and writer who has appeared in numerous theatre productions across the UK. She visited campus with Actors From The London Stage, one of the oldest touring Shakespeare theatre companies in the world. In their recent production of Hamlet, Madeleine played Hamlet as well as two other parts, and here she talks with host Ted Fox about the experience of inhabiting multiple characters in the same show.

They also cover the magical transformation that takes place when the Bard’s words come to life off the page, her favorite Shakespearean roles, the differences between acting for the stage and for the screen, and her band, The Amazing Devil.

Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. The idea behind this show is pretty simple: A university campus is a destination for all kinds of interesting people, representing all kinds of research specialties and fields of expertise, so why not invite some of these folks out to brunch-- yes, I said brunch--where we'll have an informal conversation about their work, and then I'll turn those brunches into a podcast? It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. With a Side of Knowledge is supported by Sorin's restaurant inside Notre Dame's Morris Inn, which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. If you see us recording, feel free to stop by and say hi. Preferably not when we're chewing.

Madeleine Hyland is an actress, singer, and writer who has appeared in numerous theater productions across the UK, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's Olivier- and Tony Award-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which played in the West End and on Broadway. Madeleine visited campus with Actors From The London Stage, one of the oldest touring Shakespeare theatre companies in the world. Coordinated by Shakespeare at Notre Dame, the company is cast in London and rehearses there, then tours their performance to colleges and universities across the United States. In their recent production of Hamlet, Madeleine played the title role as well as two other parts. That's where we started our conversation, with what it's like to inhabit multiple characters in the same show. And then we went on to discuss the magical transformation that takes place when the Bard's words come to life off the page. Madeleine and I also talked about her favorite Shakespearean roles, the differences between acting for the stage and for the screen, and her band, The Amazing Devil. We spent some time on pubs and bars, too, which was way more on topic than it sounds. (end voiceover)

Madeleine Hyland, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Madeleine Hyland  2:07  
Hi. (laughs)

Ted Fox  2:09  
Actors From The London Stage, which is who you're, the troupe that you're here performing Hamlet with, it's a five-person troupe--meaning you have five people to play all the roles in a play. And I know this isn't, you play Hamlet, the lead role, as well as Marcellus and Fortinbras. I know you've done something similar earlier this year at the Factory Theatre in their production of Macbeth. And I'm wondering, to someone from the outside, is this as difficult as it sounds to play this many roles in one play?

Madeleine Hyland  2:43  
It's pretty challenging, but I suppose there's a kind of delight that comes with it. So I suppose as soon as you just plug into the fun of it, then you're fine, you know? I love what it does to the show because it immediately lifts it into a non-literal realm. So it means that the audience can then engage with so many other things in the play, as well, that are completely non-literal. You know, like the fact that there's a woman playing a man's role and you know, all this stuff. So yeah, it's fun. It's definitely--it requires a physical precision that is not something I've had to really deal with in the Factory before. Because in the Factory, we tend to learn a lot of roles, but then you'll be cast, generally speaking, just in one for the whole show, and you don't usually have to do too much doubling within a scene. (laughs)

Ted Fox  3:38  
Because you're actually, I was gonna say, so in this production of Hamlet, you're actually having scenes where you're playing two characters who are on stage at the same time.

Madeleine Hyland  3:47  
Yeah, yeah.

Ted Fox  3:48  
That's crazy. (laughs)

Madeleine Hyland  3:49  
It's really good fun. I think the last time I had to do that was in the Wolf Hall understudy run, where I was playing Anne Boleyn and Mary Boleyn and Jane Seymour or something, all at the same time. But again, there's this charm that comes with that because, you know, we had a director, our assistant director for that show, come out at the beginning of the show, and just have a chat to the audience and say, Look, this is what you're going to see today. And the audience are so generous, and they, I think, certainly something I've learned over my last sort of 15 years or whatever it is, it's that, you know, if you invite the audience to come with you on a journey or to play a game with a convention, they're usually more than happy to, you know? And it kind of unites you in a very special way that is very unique to a live experience, I think, you know. And it kind of brings me back to why we do theater, rather than just recording everything-- even though I'm all for recording things, too. (both laugh)

Ted Fox  4:58  
I didn't take personal offense, not at all. (Madeleine laughs) How would you describe-- this sounds like a huge question--how would you describe Hamlet to someone coming to the play for the first time? Or maybe someone who hasn't thought about Hamlet since they read it in high school English class? What, what is this play to you, if you were trying to describe it?

Madeleine Hyland  5:23  
It's a play about someone who is dealing with some really big human situations. You know, his dad has just died. That's number one. Number two, his mother has then just married his--I mean, this is not spoilers, this will happen to them the first thing, so it's fine.

Ted Fox  5:42  
And it's been around for ...

Madeleine Hyland  5:44  
It's been around for a while. (laughs) Number two, his mother has then immediately got married to his uncle, his father's brother, and so I think those two things alone would be the basis of a really interesting play. But then number three, you know, he's a student who has been at school in Wittenberg. So he's been studying, I assume, you know, Protestants' religious texts, which say that there's no purgatory, and then suddenly, the ghost of his dead father comes to him and says, I'm stuck in purgatory, please avenge my death. So immediately, you've got these three big setups; the payoff for those things can only be extraordinary. So those are three big, huge hooks within the first, what, 15 minutes, 10-15 minutes. And you know, and also, he's in love with a beautiful girl, and there are so many ways that it could work out fine, but it doesn't. But I suppose along the way, what he discovers about himself, and the questions that he then asks about the nature of the self and what happens after we die, and these questions keep powering him through the play on a journey, sort of, that goes deeper and deeper inside those questions that we will ask ourselves deep in the middle of the night, and which get right to the essence of what on earth we're doing here. (laughs) And so those are really fun questions to both be asked of by someone on stage and to ask an audience when you're on stage and to have that conversation, to ask those questions and really mean them and really think about them, and really then be asking the audience to think about them. That's a really fun game, which people have been wanting to play for 400 years.

So I don't see it losing its popularity anytime soon, as long as we are willing to do that in a work, you know, as long as we are as human beings interested in, What else? Which is not a given. You know, there are definitely times when people don't want to ask those questions. For understandable reasons, you know--life gets tough, and people just want to survive. And that's also totally understandable. But I think, I think ultimately, that they're the questions that we ask when we are facing death in any form. So I guess we either ask them when we're facing death itself, or we asked them before that. And I suppose what I really love about Hamlet is that he's willing to face it, you know? He's met by this extraordinary experience of meeting his father's ghost, and he doesn't back away from it. He goes, Right, I'm going to look at this. I think maybe this is a very broad generalization, but I think in Western culture in general, where death is something that we don't really want to deal with and we kind of put it away and try not to talk about it, and I think our grieving processes are pretty shoddy for the most part. And Hamlet goes, No, you know? I think he despises hypocrisy more than anything. And the hypocrisy of denying death is something that he goes, No, no, I want to look at it, and I will leap into graves to find out what it is and look at it and stare at it in the eyes and see what's on the other side.

Ted Fox  9:32  
If you were to kind of think about what is a real common misconception that you feel like people, audiences, whatever, when they're thinking about Shakespeare in the abstract and thinking about his work in the abstract, what would that be?

Madeleine Hyland  9:44  
Sure. So I think it comes down to a few things. I think the way that Shakespeare is taught at school--and poetry in general, really--has suffered a terrible, it's undergone a terrible process, I think, in the 20th century, which is a legacy, I think, of the Victorian sort of way of looking at things, and of the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire to a certain extent. You know, wanting to sort of clamp down on certain values and in a way to make education into this thing that is very much only perceived as being for the elite, rather than for everyone. I think Shakespeare when he was writing was using poetry and memorable language in the same way that great folk songwriters use language, you know? He's wanting to make it memorable so that it will stick in your head and so that you can, so that you can be taught it almost without without reading it, you know? I was reading--is it the Poetry Out Loud Festival over here in the States?

Ted Fox  11:09  
I'm not sure.

Madeleine Hyland  11:09  
It's really fantastic. I was reading an amazing article about it, where they started to, they started a competition where they got kids to just learn poetry, by memory, to learn it off by heart, and then they would have a big old competition and within the school with kids, just, you know, reading this poetry out, just off by heart. Sorry I'm not making words very well; it's early in the morning. (Ted laughs) And apparently, so the perceived notion, you know, when they were applying to the funders, they were all saying, No, no, no, this will never appeal, you'll only get the really bright kids wanting to do this. But actually, it was the total opposite; it was the kids who had often felt like poetry wasn't accessible to them and English-as-a-second-language speakers and all sorts that suddenly grabbed this project and made it their own. And then it was this huge hit across loads of different states.

So I think there's, I think when Shakespeare is just taught dryly on the page, that's when it's really boring. Because you're also, you're asking your rational mind to analyze and engage with something that is not purely rational; it is poetic, and it is speaking to your unconscious body and your shadow self and your, your, your poetic, magical self. And when you say the words out loud, and when you start saying them and meaning them, and when you learn them off by heart, it does something to you that hooks you for life, you know? I was doing a project at Shakespeare's Globe in the education department where we were going into local schools. And so we had like a class each to do a scene each, and then we strung the whole of Midsummer Night's Dream together. And I had a bunch of seven-year-olds, and we were doing Oberon and Titania, you know, "Ill met by moonlight." And I really stuck to my guns. And I said, I don't want to cut this scene. And all of my supervisors were like, No, no, you have to cut it, you have to, and I was like, No. (laughs) And so I, you know, I divided the speech up so each bunch of kids only had four or five lines to speak. But what I found was was that they all ended up learning the whole thing anyway because they just got used to hearing it. And I walked back into the classroom--I mean, A), when they did the show, they were wonderful and remembered the whole thing and it was glorious. But when I walked back into the classroom three months later to go and say hi, I walked in, and they immediately all just started reciting at me the whole of Titania's big speech about, you know, the Earth coming apart. So if seven-year-olds can do it, then anyone can do it. And it's literally then a matter of getting over whatever block it is in oneself that says, Oh no, I can't, this isn't for me. Once you allow yourself to not understand it all, then you can go on a real ride, you know? I think understanding with the rational mind is a little overrated in our society. (laughs)

Ted Fox  14:15  
I don't disagree at all. (Madeleine laughs) This might be a little unfair to ask, but it's kind of related to what you were talking about, a very different age group, but this tour that you're getting ready to go on with Actors From The London Stage, I know there's an educational component to it. Can you talk a little bit about that? What your understanding is that you'll be doing when you go to these different university campuses?

Madeleine Hyland  14:36  
Yeah. So my understanding is that we will, at the beginning of the week, we'll get a whole bunch of classes, and we'll divvy them up between the five of us and I mean, we will be delivering whatever the teachers sort of ask us to deliver. But I think generally through the lens of Shakespeare or speaking out loud, what it is to communicate and ...

Ted Fox  15:03  
In all kinds of different disciplines, right? It's not just like you're going to theater classes; you might go to an accounting class or whatever.

Madeleine Hyland  15:10  
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I figure, you know, Shakespeare is such a great starting point. You can do a workshop on two lines of text, and it can still open up and up and up and up and up. I think whatever discipline we're involved in, we're all human beings, and we all like communicating. (laughs) Shakespeare's really good at teaching us how to do it.

Ted Fox  15:38  
In addition to Hamlet right now, you've played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Madeleine Hyland  15:42  
Yeah. (laughs)

Ted Fox  15:42  
You played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Titania and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And I mean, when I was looking at your CV, it goes on. And I'm wondering, do you have a favorite Shakespearean character that you have played? Is there one role for you that was--they're all great, this is the one that really sticks with me as something that was really a special experience to be able to inhabit that character?

Madeleine Hyland  16:10  
Oh, goodness.

Ted Fox  16:11  
And as I'm asking you this, (Madeleine laughs) I'm feeling like the whole thing, like the old joke of like, it's like asking you to pick among your children, which one is your favorite child?

Madeleine Hyland  16:19  
It really is. So I suppose Cymbeline was the play that--so when I first finished training in New Zealand, I then did a master class with Tim Carroll, who is now the head of the Shaw Festival in Canada. And within a week--well, I mean, within about 10 minutes, really--he suddenly clarified exactly what the difference between verse and prose is and how Shakespeare was applying them, and how to really go in to bat for the verse, as he calls it, you know? So, like, Shakespeare was writing in verse, so how to fully kind of commit to that in the trust that the performance will knock you off, anyway. I hear a lot of actors going, Yeah, but I want to do it my way, you know? And I kind of go, and what Tim was really amazing at implementing in me, was this thing of going, Well, what if there's more to you than you think, you know, and if you give your rational mind something to focus on, like the verse--like really doing the verse--the angels get a word in edgewise. Or the unconscious parts of you, your gut impulses, get to then meet this thing that you're engaging with. So that was a huge revelation. And he also told us about this production of Hamlet that he was doing in Budapest at the time, where they were getting actors to learn multiple roles, and then casting at the last minute, and the audience are bringing all the props. And I think Ken Campbell had already done a Macbeth actually in pidgin English in the West End, where he got all the actors to learn every role, and then the audience were to cast the play by observing all the actors at the beginning of the show doing a hacker. And they cast Macbeth according to who they felt the ancestors were moving through that evening.

Ted Fox  18:00  
Oh, wow. (laughs)

Madeleine Hyland  18:01  
So Tim's work was, I think, borrowing a little from that. And now it's all over the West End. You know, there's all sorts of projects going on where actors are learning two roles, and then casting. Because I think, you know, it really nails in this live experience. So anyway, so I did that master class, and then immediately I was like, Okay, so I have to make a company. So I got 10 actors together from my drama school class, and we put on a production of Cymbeline in a local Irish pub. It was a converted church that had that sense of kind of being in the round. And that's something that I really, really loved. You know, I mean, working at the Globe was a revelation because you immediately see what that does to the play and to the conditions of performance because you're not only--as an audience member, you're not only having your own experience, you're having, because you're so aware, because you can see everyone, you're then so aware of everyone else's experience, as well. So it's like your own experience gets multiplied by 100 or by 1,000, you know, or whatever. And so, it's just like really good three-dimensional training for your brain, you know? It sort of lifts everything up. So, anyway, so we were doing Cymbeline, and I was playing Imogen or Caius Lucius in that production. You know, I suppose there were initial worries within the cast as to whether we would all get, you know, become these egomaniacs and become horribly in competition with each other. But the opposite happened, you know? We really, because we were always observing what each other were doing, we could then take each other's performance and then build on it. So it was like both performances got better and better and better as the show went on. And that really stuck with me. You know, that was wonderful. I suppose after that I had a year last year, year before, where I played Mercutio and then a third of Timon of Athens, when we took Timon of Athens to Wales with the Factory. And I was also playing a sort of character that I call Scarlet Scarlet with my band, The Amazing Devil.

Ted Fox  20:05  
And I want to ask you about your band.

Madeleine Hyland  20:06  
(laughs) Yeah, but that was another real turning point in terms of uncovering what Mercutio and Timon and Scarlet Scarlet asked of me was this, to bring out some of the nastier sides of my personality, and some of the more cutting and cruel and angry, you know, parts of myself that are things that I think I suppressed for quite a long time. (laughs) So I'm now finding that those are coming in really handy with Hamlet because Hamlet has a cruelty in him that I don't know if I would have been able to access without having gone through those parts.

But coming back to why Cymbeline is my favorite play. So it's this sort of turning point play, and we called our theatre company Peripeteia because of that sense of it being a turning point in Shakespeare's sort of journey, where he stops killing the heroine. And it's the first play where he tries to save her. And it's kind of clunky, but it's sort of, it's also beautiful. And I think there's something about this late place with Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale where I feel like those are the images I want to multiply in the world. You know what I mean? In terms of providing a template for how we make peace and move forward after devastation. I think those are, those feel like the really necessary plays to me.

Ted Fox  21:45  
You recently made your television debut playing Lady Crawley in the new adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel Vanity Fair. And I'm wondering, how do you find the experience of acting for television compares to acting for the stage?

Madeleine Hyland  22:03  
I suppose it's just the time distorts differently, doesn't it? So when you're making a piece of theatre, you have four weeks, or, you know, you have some rehearsal time, anyway, to get to know everyone. Whereas with television, it's super quick. It's like your brain has to go into, like, sprinting mode but also stay incredibly relaxed. You know, you can spend a long time in the trailer, and then suddenly, it's you, and you've got to get through these scenes, and then those things that are recorded are then going to last forever and ever. (Ted laughs) So it's like, it's sort of the reverse, you know? But only in terms of your perception of time, in a way. So I think--thank you so much. (sound of drink pouring) It required just another level of trust in myself, that what I was bringing to the table was enough, and that I'd done the work necessary to be able to then just make some choices in the moment or change them very quickly, you know, to offer the editor some different things. Because I was only playing a very small part. But I was lucky in that, you know, the director was really specifically keeping an eye on my choices and letting me know whether that was what they wanted or not, or whether they wanted me to push it in a slightly different direction.

So yeah, it's fascinating. But I suppose the biggest difference is that you are, you're just looking towards this single eye. Whereas in the theater, you need to stay open to everyone. And especially working in the round, as I love to do, you're always thinking in this kind of three-dimensional way, and it's much more about, I find, making sure that your voice is heard, you know? Because theater audiences, as long as they can hear you, they'll pretty much be happy. So it feels more like singing in a way in the theater, whereas for the screen, it's like I found that my experience working in a bar (laughs) actually came in really handy in that. So I used to work in this great bar called The French House, which if you're ever in Dean Street in Soho in London, you have to go to, it's the most wonderful little tiny pub in the world. And the bar sort of sticks out a little bit.

Ted Fox  24:36  
And what was it called again? 

Madeleine Hyland  24:37  
The French House.

Ted Fox  24:38  
The French House, okay.

Madeleine Hyland  24:38  
Yeah. Used to be the Yorkminster, but it was run by a Frenchman. Well, he was actually Belgian, but everyone thought he was French, and the French Resistance used to meet there during the war, and Dylan Thomas and I think Sylvia Plath even went there, and like it's got this whole history, you know, Francis Bacon--all these amazing artists and [inaudible]. It's sort of, they kind of call it the last bastion of old Bohemian Soho. So it's brilliant. Anyway, but yeah, this bar would kind of--I mean, it was tiny, (laughs) but it would sort of, it would go out a bit. So it was a little bit like being on a thrust stage. The moment when you--I feel like I'm gonna get very personal here--the moment where you, you know, you clock someone walking in the room who you have a crush on, or who is the love of your life, or whatever. And then the awareness that you have of just that one person's eye, and yet simultaneously knowing that you have to be aware of all of the technical needs of all these other people that need to have their drink served. But you've still got your eye on this one guy, you know? And you want to make sure that he's seeing your best side (laughs), that he's seeing what you really want him to see of you. That felt very akin to being on a set where you've got kind of 50 people around you or with a job to do, and you're kind of trying to make sure that everyone is happy, but the camera is the one that you're really giving everything to and kind of floating with. (laughs) In the sense that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what the camera picks up of your performance, you know? You can be having the biggest internal process going on in the world, but if it doesn't reach the camera, then it's absent forever and ever. And only the other 50 or 60 people in the room, who are probably focused on something else anyway.

Ted Fox  26:40  
It's a great analogy. That's perfect. No, that makes complete sense.

Madeleine Hyland  26:44  
But it was--because screen-acting was a bit of mystery to me. And then to be on set and kind of go, Oh, this reminds me of something, was quite a revelation.

Ted Fox  26:57  
So the last question before we eat, and it came up a little bit earlier, you mentioned your band, The Amazing Devil.

Madeleine Hyland  27:04  
Yeah. (laughs)

Ted Fox  27:05  
I'm wondering, you're the front woman for that band, and you said you play the character Scarlet Scarlet performing in the band. Can you tell us a little bit about your music as well as the name? Because I think people always love band names and where band names come from. (Madeleine laughs) So both of those pieces, what kind of music you guys do, and where your name came from.

Madeleine Hyland  27:24  
Oh, yeah, I love the story. (laughs) So the band was formed by my friend Joey and I when we were doing Wolf Hall for the RSC; it was like a two year job, right? So it started in Stratford-upon-Avon and then went into the West End, then went to Broadway. And by the end of Stratford, you know, because I was understudying seven parts or something, and he had a small--well, no, he had a significant small role, but it was the kind of show where it was a little like a one-man show about Cromwell with everyone else overseeing and having a couple of things. Fantastic. We had a wonderful time. But we also had a lot of downtime. So we started, Joey's a wonderful guitar player and a very talented songwriter. And we both kind of had a box of songs under the bed that we'd been wanting to do things with for a while. So we got those out. And he started tinkering with my things, and I started, you know, making suggestions. And so we started writing this album. By the time we finished Broadway, we had a sort of whole album ready to go.

So as soon as we got back to London, we were like, Okay, we have some pennies for almost the first time in our lives, saved up from being on Broadway, so let's go and put them all into into recording an album. And so we went into a tiny little studio in Stoke Newington, which was an ex-button factory. And it was a very intense experience to go in and make this album, which was kind of, it has a sort of narrative to it. But yes, I suppose Scarlet Scarlet and The Blue Furious Boy--which are, so Joey is the other co- front person, so--and the whole album is full of duets. And yeah, I suppose when we're doing it, I suppose initially, as well--because I'd done a lot of singing before, I'd done jazz singing and had this whole thing with Dexys--but I felt like there was a sort of persona that was coming out in me when I was singing these songs live. And so we started to give her a name, which was Scarlet Scarlet, and it kind of just, it enabled me to then go a lot further. As we've gone on, I feel like those boundaries getting a little more blurry now. So we're not necessarily playing the characters to such an extent, but we may do again, you know, we may. It's also just really fun. I mean, there's no denying that we're both actors, and it's very much a sort of an actor's raging against the world kind of album, you know? (laughs)

Ted Fox  29:59  
How would you describe, how would you describe the music itself?

Madeleine Hyland  30:01  
So it's kind of epic-piratey folk rock, baroque, theater? (laughs)

Ted Fox  30:13  
I've listened to some of it, so I would say, I like that description. Yeah.

Madeleine Hyland  30:19  
It's ginormous fun to sing, and we really have learned a huge amount, while singing, about acting. And, you know, people often say, You know, what's more important to you, singing or acting? And I go, Well, no, like, the more I've done the singing, the more it's informed the acting, and the more I've acted, the more it's informed the singing, so they just make each other better, the more I do both of them. But yeah, then we came to the point where we had to find a name. We started writing this big, big list of names. And then, so I was living at the time with a five-year-old and an eight-year-old who are both in the first music video that we made, as well, which you can find online, it's called King.

Ted Fox  31:01  
(server brings food to table) Thank you very much.

Madeleine Hyland  31:03  
And they're the two little girls running on the beach. And Martha was sitting there drawing, and I'd already come up with about 50 names. And we were like, Martha, Martha, what should we call the band? And she just looked at us and stopped drawing, and she was like, The Amazing Devil. (Ted laughs) Like it was the most obvious thing.

Ted Fox  31:17  
How did you miss this?

Madeleine Hyland  31:18  
How did you miss it? And we were like, Oh, oh, that's really good. (both laugh) And then I sort of went away and came up with like another 50 names, and Joey was still like, No, it's The Amazing Devil, it just is. It has to be.

Ted Fox  31:33  
I think on that note, we should have our breakfast. So Madeleine Hyland, this was a pleasure. Thank you for making time for the show, and best of luck on tour this fall.

Madeleine Hyland  31:41  
Thank you.

Ted Fox  31:42  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame, with support from Sorin's restaurant. Our website is provost.nd.edu/podcast.