The Woman in the Moon: Interview with Bella Heesom
Can you name the largest female role in any professional play before the theatres closed in 1642?
It isn’t Rosalind, Shakespeare’s largest, with 26% of the words of As You Like It. Christopher Marlowe’s Dido takes second place with 31%. Topping the list however is Pandora, with nearly 33% of John Lyly’s comedy The Woman in the Moon.
Bella Heesom has already played her twice: once at The Glastonbury Festival with our Read Not Dead project, and again in a full production at The Rose Playhouse on Bankside.
As she prepares to take on the role once again, she talks to director James Wallace about the most extraordinary female part in early modern theatre.
Photography by Robert Piwko
Pandora dominates the play and barely leaves the stage. Is she a challenge or a liberation to act?
Oh, a liberation, absolutely… and a challenge. Both! I’m quite happy dominating, to be honest. And I’m very happy barely leaving the stage. I really enjoy the experience of sharing the complete journey with the audience.
The thing I found most challenging when I first started rehearsing her, was her sudden shifts in mood – the way she switches from happy to sad, from lustful to bloodthirsty, and so on, as the different planets take control of her. The changes are so quick.
Usually as an actor I try and find the through-line, the motivation. But with Pandora, there is no reason that she’s aware of, she just suddenly feels full of violent rage. And the truth of the character is that she doesn’t have an existential crisis about these unexpected, unexplained feelings, and try and control them like I probably would, she just goes with them. Boom! Let’s fight. That’s incredibly liberating and fun to play.
Some people have called this a proto-feminist play. Do you think that’s true?
Yes, I think so. It’s wonderful to see Mother Nature as the most powerful force in the universe, and it’s exciting and unusual to see a play dominated by a female character. I struggle with the wording of the ending – it can be interpreted as a bit dismissive of women as fickle, but for me that’s outweighed by the fact that throughout the story, Pandora is always the subject, never an object. She is a powerful instigator who is at the centre of all the action. She follows her instincts and never concerns herself with the approval of others, which is refreshing to see, and empowering to play. Plus she’s funny…
Julia Sandiford as Mother Nature
Do you think the role Pandora has anything to say to say to women today? Or to men?
I think to women she says: you can be anything. Anything you can dream of, you can be. The possibilities are infinite. It’s thrilling. And to men, perhaps she says: don’t underestimate us. We contain multitudes, as Whitman put it.
You not only act but write too. You’ve been touring your show My World Has Exploded a Little Bit. The subject matter is quite challenging, isn’t it? How did audiences respond on tour?
Yes, it’s an account of how I dealt with the deaths of my parents. It’s deeply personal and brutally honest, tragic but also very silly. I’m a firm believer in balancing tragedy with comedy. The audience response is incredible. It’s my favourite thing about performing the show. They laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.
It’s a pretty intense experience. I offer everyone hugs at the end, and it’s really special to have that contact with people. They often share their stories with me too, which is an honour.
This year you became an associate artist at Ovalhouse. What’s next for you after Pandora?
Yes, it’s fantastic to be working with them. Along with Arts Council England and The Bike Shed Theatre, they’re supporting the development of my next show, which I’m currently making with my long time collaborator Donnacadh O’Briain [the Oliver award winning director of Rotterdam]. It’s called Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself, and it’ll be a celebration of female sexuality and an exploration of the impact the internalised male gaze has on a woman’s relationship with her own pleasure. People will be able to see it at Ovalhouse in February next year.