Jack Lowden accepting his award for Best Actor in Film at the Scottish BAFTAs 2018
BWW Interview: Jack Lowden Talks MEASURE FOR MEASURE
The last few years have been busy on screen for actor Jack Lowden. Since War & Peace two years ago, he has featured in Dunkirk and England is mine, and has just been awarded Best Actor by BAFTA Scotland for Calibre.
Appearing in a gender swapping Measure for Measure, Lowden returns to the London stage at The Donmar Warehouse. Tackling the subjects of gender and sexual misconduct, Lowden shares just how much the play resonates today, how audiences are reacting, and the joys of doubling characters alongside Hayley Atwell.
What’s your earliest memory of theatre?
Me and my brother were members of the Manor School of Ballet in Edinburgh. I went with him and it turned out I wasn’t very good! But I ended up doing a lot of the narrating involved in kids’ ballet.
An early memory and it’s what made me really want to be an actor was watching Black Watch. I saw that when I was 15 and it was the most amazing piece of theatre I’d seen and honestly probably still is.
Since then you’ve worked across stage and screen, but which came first for you?
Well amazingly, the first play I did professionally was Black Watch! I did that for nine months around the UK and America.
Before that, I’d spent a lot of time on stage during high school and I did a lot of amateur opera down in the Scottish Borders, then went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
When I came out of drama school, my first two jobs were plays. I came down here and did Chariots of Fire in London. So basically for the first two years of my career, I was on stage.
More recently you’ve made the jump to screen, and very successfully it seems. Congratulations on the Scottish BAFTA award for Best Film Actor!
Thanks! It feels so bizarre in a way, you never expect to win anything like that.
Especially now, I still feel like I’m just starting in screen. So it was quite a shock but so lovely to win it for Calibre. My family was there and it was so nice to win something in Scotland.
Speaking of films, you’ll soon feature in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, who you’re reuniting with for Measure for Measure.
It’s been so cool, to work with her on that and then see her directing for stage with this. That was Josie’s first film and it was nice to go into her domain.
Especially with Shakespeare now, she’s done a lot of Shakespeare and I really felt like I was in a good, safe pair of hands with this show.
On to Measure for Measure, how familiar were you with the play?
Not at all, really. The only ever time I’ve done Shakespeare was at drama school.
But quite quickly, it became apparent that it’s called one of his Problem Plays for a reason! It’s an unsatisfying end to the play. But when Josie told me what she wanted to do with it, to switch the characters and explore gender, it just sounded too good to be true in terms of a challenge.
For those unfamiliar: the play is played through twice, with you and Hayley Atwell playing the same roles and switching in each half. What’s it like doubling parts with another actor?
It’s a wonderful way of working, getting to see someone else do your part for you. Hayley and I have said that to ourselves quite a lot about making each other’s mistakes for us in the rehearsal room.
I’d sit in on rehearsals that Hayley was in and watch her scenes. And she did the same with me. It’s kind of a lazy way of learning the part, I guess!
How was it developed in the rehearsal room? Did you block one version first?
We originally started by doing it chronologically. So in the morning, whenever we got to a scene with both Hayley and I, in that same afternoon we would switch and do it the other way round.
But it became very apparent very quickly that that was too much of a head-fuck! It was sort of impossible to jump from one character to another, without having explored everything about one character.
Can you take us through your two characters?
Like Angelo, I think we are all geared towards wanting power in some kind of way. I’m not going to lie: it is fun playing a character who’s in power. You almost don’t have to work as hard during a play when you’re in power (and I guess that’s the same when you’re in power in real life!)
He’s a complete contradiction and a hypocrite. He’s very flawed, but he’s not a beard-twiddling baddie. He has a bit of a conscience somewhere. That’s what I love about him, he admits his conscience to the audience but he still decides to do stuff anyway.
With Isabel in the second half, that’s someone that is so vulnerable and on the fringes of society that is played upon by someone in power. It’s especially fun and unique for Hayley and I to be able to be both vulnerable and powerful in front of each other every night, and use each other to achieve that.
You mentioned about Angelo sharing his thoughts with the audience. That must work so well in the intimacy of The Donmar Warehouse.
It’s fantastic. It’s almost like screen acting in a way, which is sort of my dream.
I have a pet hate for watching theatre when you’re 100 yards away or 100 yards up and you’re just watching talking bald spots. I kind of think, “What’s the point?” I wish all theatres were that size and that intimate.
So how have people been reacting to your Angelo in the first half?
I’ve been speaking to a lot of people post-show, which is lovely. I’ve been told how people feel so sympathetic towards Angelo in the second half (played by Hayley) because she’s very vulnerable, and they didn’t expect to feel that.
But a couple of nights ago, a girl said to me afterwards that she found herself sympathising loads with Angelo in the first half and then not at all with the character in the second half.
So there is no one reaction, everyone comes at it and brings different things with them. And I really enjoy that.
Seeing that man in power in the first half and his treatment of Isabel is incredibly timely. How are you finding it’s playing today?
Well when we first started, we were all very conscious of the current climate. When we were in tech, the Kavanaugh hearing was happening. We became even more aware of how it was playing: the fact that in the first half, we’re putting a woman in a vulnerable position who is not believed.
And of course in the second half, we’re putting a woman in power and making her the abuser. You know, we could have run away from that and maybe swallowed it and thought, “Oh, let’s not do it”.
But that second half, I don’t think it’s saying that women are just as bad as men. I think it’s saying that women who abuse their power are ultimately a product of the patriarchy and that system in general. I’m quite proud of us that we didn’t shy away from doing that.
So reversing those roles, how have you found people have been sympathising with your Isabel in the second half?
People have been sympathising a lot. I like to think that people don’t see a man; they just see a vulnerable person. I think some people quite quickly forget the gender swap and they’re just watching two different actors do the same roles.
That said, there has been a difference some nights, some laughter actually. People have said that they laugh and it can be because they’re seeing a man in that position. Rejecting a woman and not wanting to save his brother’s life, they’re just wanting to scream, “Just shag her!” Some people laugh at that.
And then flipping that, there have been nights when I’m physically starting to abuse Isabel as Angelo and people laugh…which is extraordinary. It’s just the way the evening pans out. It’s always how the audience react to the first scene, do they feel like they have permission to laugh at anything?
When we came to see it, there was definitely some laughter at the Duke’s behaviour towards your Isabel…
Yes. And you could say it’s because of the uncomfortableness of the situation and the rarity of it, people not seeing that that often. But it happens.
That moment when the Duke kisses me is interesting to explore and when I shove him off. In rehearsals, some people thought that could be seen as homophobic and that’s amazing, that people would say that! That the only reason Isabel is shoving him off is because he’s homophobic, which is completely missing the point. It’s because he’s grabbing this individual and presuming to have consent over their body. The fact that it’s a man is irrelevant.
And why can’t the reaction to that be violent? Because if he grabbed Hayley in the first act and tried to kiss her and Hayley threw him off, everybody would side with Hayley and think, “Yes, that’s what I would do”. But when a man does it, it’s somehow seen as homophobic. It’s amazing what the play can bring up.
Measure for Measure at The Donmar Warehouse until 1 December