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What about the women?

Our version of Brothers Karamazov sees the roles of Ivan and Smerdyakov played by women. We made actors Alice Birbara and Lucia May sit down with a recorder and pretend to have a completely natural conversation about their roles.


 Lucia May and Alice Birbara. Photos by Clare Hawley.

Lucia May and Alice Birbara. Photos by Clare Hawley.

Lucia May: Alice… What has it been like working on a character? That was working, in the role of Ivan, and knowing that Alan Rickman once played Ivan?

Alice Birbara: [Laughing]

LM: Tell us a little bit about your character.

AB: [Still laughing] Sorry, I don’t know why you make me laugh so fucking much. Ivan is the second brother of the Karamazov brothers, and he is the intellectual and he kind of trying to prove to everybody that god doesn’t exist. He’s an atheist, and I think just wants to prove a point for much of the play, and teach a lot of people and open their eyes to a lot of things. And yes, he was originally played by Alan Rickman, which is obviously quite intimidating. But I just try not to think about that. How about you, Chi, tell us about Smerdyakov.

LM: I would definitely classify Smerdyakov as a bit of an outsider, and he is rumored to be a son of Karamazov. At the beginning of the play that kind of unfolds, and we learn about him and his past. He’s a really interesting character because he is really different to the other brothers. They’ve all got their own thing, and he doesn’t, he’s chosen to kind of shadow Ivan. I think Smerdyakov has taken a lot of Ivan on, but is not like him at all.

AB: I think he’s really on the perimeter. And he’s super aware he’s on the perimeter.

LM: Yeah. He’s super observant, and I think he uses that to his advantage. He’s always watching everyone, and he’s always playing the underdog.

AB: What do you think motivates him? Is it power?

LM: I think he want’s recognition and acknowledgement, he wants to be seen. He isn’t really taken seriously by the others. I think power is definitely part of it, but I don’t think it’s the overarching thing for him.

AB: But there is that interesting element when they talk about his cat strangling and mutilation as a child –

LM: I think he likes to be in control.

AB: And I think that’s something he can control, because it’s small and not dominant. And he can sort of reverse the roles, because in normal society he’s the animal.

LM: Also because of his epileptic fits, being in control of something, and controlling behaviour is really important to him. Because his body betrays him all the time, and he’s never had that situation of power or control. I think he sees that in Ivan, which is what entices Smerdyakov about Ivan. Ivan can do whatever he wants, and that’s really attractive to Smerdyakov.

How is it playing roles originally written for men?

 Stephen Boxer and Alan Rickman in Brothers Karamazov, 1981.

Stephen Boxer and Alan Rickman in Brothers Karamazov, 1981.

AB: Going into this I didn’t really think about it, because I’ve been cast in so many male roles before. But it’s strange now because we are discovering the inherent masculinity in this play, and it being about fathers and sons. I don’t really think of it as I’m playing a male, except when I’m playing Karamazov, who is this epitome of disgusting masculinity. But then we also play women, so there’s this really conscious shift from being male to this one scene being female. The female characters are referred to throughout the play, but it’s always in relation to the men.  We go from playing these really complex male characters, to then playing these really one dimensional women for about five minutes.

LM: It’s such an interesting transition, until that point we’ve spent so much time with our own characters, and suddenly we have to be ‘feminine’.

AB: But I find I don’t really think about my gender unless it’s really pertinent to the play. Do you?

LM: No, me neither.

AB: Like, unless you’re being defined in a certain way: a mother, a daughter, a sister, I don’t really think about it.

LM: Yeah… I can’t really imagine Dmitry or Alyosha being played by female actors. Like, I think there’s something about Ivan and Smerd, and I don’t know what that is.

AB:  I think because they are more on the perimeter. I don’t think Ivan is a particularly masculine guy.

LM: And I think women can have the same thoughts as Ivan. But there is this archetype that Ivan plays into: this young intellectual male -

AB: Absolutely -

LM: And we expect certain things from him, or let him get away with things, like it’s fine, he’s sulky, but he’s a genius. How do we see that differently when it’s a woman?

AB: We wouldn’t allow Ivan to be Ivan if he was female. We wouldn’t allow that behaviour that he exhibits. It’s very selfish, very sulky, very moody. If that was in a woman we would call that character not likeable.

LM: Is Ivan likeable?

AB: No, but people probably find him funny. He knows he probably the smartest person in the room a lot of the time. I don’t think he’s necessarily likeable, but I think that we often like male characters that aren’t likeable because we find them alluring, because often they are outspoken. They do things that outrage us, and we go “Oh! I could never do that!” But we condone it and allow it. Male actors never have to worry about being likeable, whereas female actors do.

LM: It’s the same with Smerdyakov, who commits this act of violence. We expect that violence to come from a man.


This is only a small part of a conversation that we have been having across our rehearsal period. Join that conversation in the comments, or by coming to the show, get your tickets here.