What's Happening

Setebos Interviews: Irina Solomonoff

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 27, 2022 at 10:06 PM in Project News

In this second interview with the cast and crew of Setebos' recent performance of Cimbelino en la Patagonia, Randall Martin speaks with Irina Solomonoff, who plays the actor Ángeles as well as Posthumo, Pisanio, and Cóndor in Mónica Maffía's play-within-a-play. Read on to learn about Irina's background, how she developed the physicality of each of her characters, and her interpretation of Posthumo's motivations throughout the play. 

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Irina, thank you very much for meeting with me. 

Irina Solomonoff: Pleasure, thank you. 

CA: I’m so glad you’ve made some time today away from rehearsals to tell me about your role in Cimbelino en la Patagonia–or should I say roles–as Posthumo, as Ángeles, as Cóndor, and Pisanio. Multiple roles! It’s one of the extraordinary things about this adaptation: it’s got nested identities and metatheatrical layers. Can you tell me something about your background as an actor? Have you acted in Shakespeare before? 

IS: I’ve been living in different countries. I started my performance education here in Buenos Aires with musicals, and then I focused more on acting. I used to be a dancer as well and joined some ballet companies, and I did some singing too. Fourteen years ago I moved to Europe, and have been living in Spain, Italy, and the last nine years in London. In Barcelona I went to an acting school in TV and film. In Italy I studied something else, because I’m a multifaceted person: I have a degree in tourism and I have a masters in international trade. 

CA: You’re a Renaissance woman! 

IS: And when I moved to London, I joined a programme in performance design and practice at Central St Martin’s University of the Arts. It wasn’t specifically acting, but it included acting. It’s a course which brings people from different backgrounds – designers, singers, dancers. I was part of an international group of 23 people, and only one person was from London. Some of our teachers were stage directors, but the programme was not focused on making theatre in the classical way. It was open to new ways of making theatre – site-specific, etc. And it included a practicum in which we went to Spain for three months, were divided into three groups, and we each created a show. So it was a collective creation, a wonderful experience, and very intense. For my show, we decided to do immersive theatre set in a labyrinth, and go through it in separate scenes. I enjoyed doing it a lot. After that I finished the programme in London and did some more courses. 

My experience of Shakespeare started when Mónica went to Spain four years ago to perform her play, The Rape of Lucrezia. I assisted her in her [one-actor] performance. That was the first time I was formally in a Shakespeare play. Back in London I was assistant director to As You Like It, but it was at the beginning of the pandemic, so it was a zoom adaptation called As You Like It in Lockdown. Instead of going to the woods, the characters went to an estate outside London. That performance included a pre-course where we were taught about the First Folio, and that’s where I really got into Shakespeare. It was a completely different world! That was in 2020. And then I joined Mónica again for her play called Carpe Diem on zoom with Diego [Verni], Sophía [Drever], and Nico [McCormick]. So we met virtually last year before meeting here in person for Cimbelino.

CA: So you've had a fair amount of Shakespeare experience. You weren’t part of her artistic residency [for Cymbeline] at [El Centro Cultural] San Martín in the autumn, were you? 

IS: I was, but not at the beginning. I was the last one to join the group. And then they started again, but I missed that part and didn’t join them again until March. It’s a pity I missed that I lost part of the process, I was in London!

CA: When you joined the group, can you tell me about how you approached the roles of Posthumo and Ángeles?

IS: When I learned I was going to perform a man, it was a bit, “ah ha …”. That was a challenge, because from a physical point of view, I’m distant from playing a man in the body, in the way of just standing. I’m conscious that I didn’t have the time to go in depth with that. I would have loved to have explored that a bit further. With the time I had, I tried to focus on little things, especially because I was performing two different men, Posthumo and Pisanio. So I tried to make a visible difference between one and the other. Posthumo I imagined as someone physically stronger, and Pisanio a bit more shy. But then I was discussing with Mónica, he [Pisanio] isn’t really shy, because he addresses the public, and sometimes he is laughing at Cloten. So he’s not that shy, probably. But I needed to make an easy difference with a stronger look and posture, and the other with somebody who is servant, and always talking to someone in a higher position.  

CA: I think you did achieve that. Your posture as Pisanio was certainly different from Ángeles. I’m going to come back to Posthumus, but let’s talk about Ángeles first. She was the one right from the beginning who was open to the transformative premise of Dewi´s scenario of bringing a variety of regional actors to El Chaltén. What Mónica has constructed in Dewi is an antitype of Prospero [in The Tempest]. Dewi brings all the actors from different regions to his “desert island.” And he is a kind of environmental magus, as well as a de-colonizer. Some of the people like Teresa are initially not into it. She’s on her mobile phone, complaining about it not working, etc. She’s a city girl, and she [Sophía Drever] was telling me that has to be broken down. Whereas Ángeles is more receptive from the beginning, and she wants to be transformed. 

IS: Yes, exactly, yes. Ángeles is more open to experience and more connected to nature.     

CA: Where does that come from, in your mind, as you were thinking of Ángeles as a character? 

IS: I imagined her as being a quiet person, someone who doesn’t get angry easily, and she’s trying to have a connected spiritual life. She also has this homeopathic remedy. How do call it? 

CA: I first thought it was something like echinacea, but she calls it Bach. I have to do some research about that [editor's note: the remedy Ángeles takes in the play is Bach Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic botanical tincture]. So Ángeles is a bit more “alternative.” 

IS: Yes, and people who take that [remedy] are trying to avoid the more industrial medicines. It’s a mix of different flowers, depending on what your feelings are. These are natural ingredients, so it has to do a lot with her [Ángeles]. Something that Mónica mentioned, that when Dewi says, “what does El Chaltén mean?,” he says it’s “una montaña humeante” [“smoking mountain”], and she gets afraid of that because she thinks it’s a volcano and she's going to faint there. And then she takes the drops. And Mónica said, I imagine this character a bit hypochondriac. That is the negative side of Ángeles, because it’s a bit excessive. 

CA: Mónica was telling me that she thought of each of the characters as having a weakness.      

IS: Yes. For Ángeles it is that she always feels very nervous. So, as Ángeles, I always have my drops at hand, just in case I need them. On Friday [at the performance] people laughed a lot at that, when Diego [playing Norberto] was tense after the gambling scene [gambling is Norberto’s “weakness,” according to Mónica Maffía], and I tried to give him the drops, and he didn’t like them. Because these drugs are very popular here. They laughed a lot, and I wasn’t expecting that, to be honest. 

CA: Yes, his personality [Norberto’s] is so forceful, and he reacts, “bleah!” That was funny. And in general the audience was very engaged with the performance. There was no fidgeting. 

That’s interesting what you say about Ángeles, because on the one hand she is open to transformation, more in touch with the natural world, but she also wants a certain amount of distance, to be protected from it. And the poisonous aspects of modern life. Yet as one also notices, as her experience in El Chaltén goes on she stops taking the drops. When is the last time you take your drops? 

IS: Well, actually, after I offer them [to Norberto]. But it was also a practical decision, because I was always having to change clothes! So I don’t think the character leaves that. But I show that side, and the audience knows that, and then you change clothes … 

CA: …and you’re playing Posthumo more … 

IS: Yes, exactly.

CA: Well, that's a good lead into my next question. Because one of the wonderful things about this adaptation is that there is a lot of blurring of identities of the actors [in the play] and the [Cymbeline] characters. This is part of the metadrama of the play. They entwine and cross over. So in this case it’s an interesting convergence, because you’ve got Ángeles who is a woman, and Posthumus who is a man and a very different character. So to what extent did you see those two identities mingling? 

IS: In other characters I think you can see that a bit more. But as Ángeles, she’s a quiet person, and as Posthumo, he’s a strong character fighting battles. So I didn’t find a strong connection. Because by contrast, Norberto gets very possessed about playing the gambling scene [over Innogen’s chastity], because it brings out his own weakness. 

CA: Yes, he’s very competitive, and gets worked up about it right away. And then Ángeles has to calm him down. 

IS: Yes, and I’m the person who calms him down, but I am also in the scene as well [as Posthumo] and we are doing a duel. So I can’t relate Ángeles to that. I wondered if Mónica was trying to create a situation of opposites. 

CA: A contrast, yes. Because with other characters, for instance Ele merging with Cloten, there's a strong crossover of the actor in the play and the Cymbeline character.  

IS: In my case it was the character in the play [Ángeles] getting distanced from the character [in Cymbeline]. Whereas certain things in Ángeles I can identify with personally.    

CA: A follow-up question: part of Dewi’s plan is to create a site-immersive scenario. He invokes the active influence of El Chaltén and the Tehuelche mythology, physically and mentally. So the typical rhythms of the play are that they play a scene from Cymbeline, and then they take a break, and Dewi sends them off to pick fruit, or climb the mountain. There are repeated encounters with nature. So my question is, is the character of Posthumus, while Ángeles is playing, possibly influenced by those actors’ breaks, and is that part of his character change in the text of Cymbeline, by absorbing and ingesting the physical environment of El Chaltén? 

IS: There is something about that in the adaptation, because Posthumus is the first person in the script who invocates Setebos. In the very first scene with Ínnogen, when she gives Posthumo the ring, she says, “this is for your new wife after I die.” And he says, “Setebos! I want this one, not another” (I’m translating from Spanish). After I say that and we go to the first break, Dewi asks me, “Ángeles, why are you saying Setebos?” 

CA: Yes, instead of “the gods” in Shakespeare’s text. There’s a lot of that substitution, and Mónica picked up on it very creatively. 

IS: So it’s there that I said to Dewi, it’s because I felt a connection to our land. And it’s at that point that Dewi starts thinking, well maybe the war in Cymbeline is not about Britain and Rome. After that Posthumo always says “Setebos” when he invokes a god. And in the big [collective, involuntary] invocation by actors [after they first arrive in El Chaltén], I’m the one who starts that [as Ángeles]. And there’s an important moment just before the representation of the myth [of the birth of Setebos] when Posthumo says, “Setebos, give me the courage of my ancestors.” So it’s always Posthumo who is trying to create a connection with the place and the play. That’s a bit of Ángeles coming though Posthumo. 

CA: Yes, definitely. Because she is the one who is most connected with nature to begin with, but for Posthumo, it starts as something that’s unconscious. So there’s an organic convergence.  

IS: Yes. And I don’t think it’s Posthumus’s personality. It’s really Ángeles, and about connecting with the place where we are. 

CA: Absolutely. Can you tell me more about how you saw Posthumo changing over the course of the whole play ?

IS: Yes, I think that’s important in the character. He gets first defeated by Giacomo. He’s getting similar to Giacomo [in his misogyny], and then he reacts in a very drastic way. He didn’t want to give the ring, but he’s really taken by Giacomo. He’s not thinking that Innogen will be with [Giacomo]. But then, after the “proof”, he leaves the scene in total anger and orders the murder of Innogen–it’s after getting physical “proof,” that’s when he changes completely, and begins to talk about femicide. 

CA: It’s a bit ambiguous in Shakespeare. Because as he begins to regret his rashness [in 5.1] he says: look, husbands, you’re willing to go to the extreme of killing your wives “for wrying a little” (which means in this case cheating)--and then, he says: I forgive you Innogen. So does he think: Innogen *was* unfaithful, but I’m still going to forgive her? Or, is he saying: she wasn’t unfaithful and I shouldn’t have murdered her. Some critics argue that he never gets it that Innogen wasn’t unfaithful until Giacomo confesses. 

IS: I thought that. 

CA: Well it’s perfectly reasonable. But I’ve asked other actors, and they say, no, Posthumus knows she wasn’t unfaithful. It’s an ambiguous line in Shakespeare’s text. 

IS: I thought that the “proof” was making him think, she did have a bad reputation, but the murder was too much. That’s how I interpreted it. And it’s interesting, because I thought femicide is such a big thing that is talked about here, that it was Mónica’s adaptation. 

CA: You’re also bringing out another point about Posthumus: the way he thinks about Innogen is always in terms of objects. When Giacomo and Posthumo are wagering about Innogen, they never mention her name. But the ring and the lands and bracelet are substitute objects of exchange. And the bloody cloth that Pisanio sends to Posthumus is the same. It’s never about Innogen herself, and that’s perhaps why there’s confusion in his mind. It’s always about material displacement. He’s not thinking about the individual woman. And that kind of confusion continues when he goes into the battle sequence: he’s a Roman, and then he’s a Briton, and then he’s a Roman again. 

IS: I laughed about that when you talked about that in your presentation! 

CA: And at the end of the play he’s formally the hero, but he’s flawed, and he realizes he’s flawed, and there’s finally some truthful self-consciousness. But then he slaps Fidel/Ínogen. So he’s a difficult figure, and he doesn’t turn into Prince Charming at the end.   

That leads me to my next observation and question. When you were reconciled with Ínnogen, your physical relationship was not typically romantic. Can you tell me about that? Because I thought it was very interesting the way you played it, and persuasive. 

IS: I think we just started playing it that way, not in the physical and the touching, but just looking into the eyes, and we were told it was important to maintain that. And in rehearsal, we had a choreographer, she watched that scene, and said I was thinking that Sophía [playing Ínnogen] is not a man, and Ínnogen’s not going to behave similar to a man, even if she’s a great actor. [The choreographer] thought of how to explain that relationship, and she said it’s like the tango, in which there’s someone who leads and someone that follows. In that relation, the sex doesn’t matter. If it’s the woman leading, the man follows, and the other way around. And that made sense because Ínnogen is such a strong character…  

CA: She’s the hero.

IS: Yes, definitely. So because Sophía continued with her strong presence, she was saying to me about Posthumus, leave the energy to the other. In tango, you don’t watch the other person’s feet. You need to really trust the person, and lean into and feel like an extension of the other person. So you will automatically follow the lead person’s step. You need to feel connected. I dance tango, but I don’t think Sophía does, and I was showing her, and I said try to maintain that idea in the scene. 

CA: Yes, it’s physical but it’s also about emotional connectivity. 

IS: We call that “el abrazo.” Another example is from fishing. It’s incredible, because you can’t see anything in the ocean, yet you feel that tension in the fishing line, and it’s like a little bit of your arm going into the water. So that’s how we did the scene. And we worked especially on the moment when I take off Ínogen’s hat and discover it’s her, so I got down on my knees to watch her. But the rest was, as I said, said more with the eyes in the distance. And I hope it worked from the audience’s side, this connection. 

CA: It did work for me, partly because it was surprising, and partly because it made psychological sense, like the reunion of Leontes and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. They need time, and there’s work to be done. And thinking just now about that tango relationship between the two of them, in which the two persons become an interdependent unit: is that also an ecological metaphor? 

IS: Well, I’m thinking about this for the first time, but now that you ask me, if you trust the other person and you rely yourself on the other, you need to be more connected with the outside world. There is a parallelism to being connected with nature, and through the senses. 

CA: That’s what the actors in the play are doing through the whole story. They’re opening themselves up; it’s physical but also spiritual–holistic, to put it in Ángeles’s language. And that means they’re going outside their individual egos, but also outside of their human perceptions, and especially beyond an instrumental regard of nature. And that’s about moving beyond the Anthropocene, which is using nature in ways that are utilitarian and extractive. And this relates to the metamorphosis that Dewi is trying to bring about, to have the actors identify both metaphorically and literally with nature. And that includes the bird and animal roles they play in the dumb-show of Setebos’s birth, such as your Cóndor.
I have one last question. What in the end did you think was this play’s environmental value or ecological significance? 

IS: There are several things! First of all, the location: the fact that we are transporting the audience to a well-known natural landscape in Argentina. And you see through the play how the characters are getting connected with it. But also it’s showing how some characters are having difficulty doing that, with their cell phones, etc. And then they get more involved with the landscape. Even Norberto, who has this anger and anxiety, is telling me, “you were right, Ángeles. I went to the trees, and I feel like I’m a new person.” And he brings an olive branch as a symbol of forgiveness. So all that is teaching us how the connection with nature can make us better persons. That’s for me one of the first things. 

Second is the fact that we are all travelling to a neutral space for us. [The actors in the play] are all from different provinces, and we go to a place that is in our country, of course, but it’s not in any of our provinces. And we go to a place where, as an actor, anyone would love to be rehearsing in a workshop there. 

Third are all the parts of the play where we are talking about real ecological problems. We are having what looks to be a happy scene. Norberto comes back and he is rested and has reconnected himself. And then he turns to more traumatic things when he talks about dark clouds and ashes. The scene completely changes to show you the ecological reality that we are facing [in Argentina]. I didn’t know some of the things that we discussed. We all know that there are some intentional fires. But as Norberto explains, they are for the extraction of metals, so that the [exposed] reflections [in the ground] can show them. And I don’t know how many people in the audience knew that.  

CA: Yes, where the mineral veins are. I had to spend time with that moment [in the Spanish text].

IS: Yes, because it’s very technical, and I didn’t know that, and I've been personally interested in that theme since I was a child. One of my first children’s books was one called My First Ecology Book, and it showed a coat made from an animal, and you could see a baby animal looking at it and saying, “mama, mama!” So I got a conscience about ecology from an early age. By including [the conversations about ecological problems today] you are taking a Shakespeare play and putting it into a natural landscape, but also talking about the bad things happening to the planet. And I think it’s great you have the whole thing together – some funny moments, and then others where the actors are devastated to learn what is happening. I hope the audience also gets the same sense. I really like that part of the project. 

CA: Yes, that tragi-comedy is part of the cultural work of the play. As I mentioned in my talk last week, the environmental content and Indigenous reclamation will be remembered because the performance is moving. And as I said earlier, the audiences were clearly engaged with the play and enjoyed it a lot, which means the new ecological horizons you were introducing are going to remain more meaningful because they have a subjective connection, on an individual human level. 

IS: And in the connection with our traditions. With the dancing from different regions. That’s also a way of getting more connected with the environment. Mónica’s plays have a huge amount of research in them. They’re very rich. 

CA: I'm realizing all the pieces fit together as I get to know the play better. Thank you so much, Irina, this has been really illuminating, and enriching for me. 

IS: Thank you for this project!