15 January 2015

Interview: Jonathan Cake on ‘More Between Heaven and Earth’

Jonathan Cake

“Whenever I’m called upon to do something that’s absolutely alien to me, I’m thrilled,” says Jonathan Cake. “This is one of the great privileges of being an actor: people will open a door that had been locked to you and give you the privilege of going through and looking around.”

On Sunday, January 18, Cake ventures into new territory with More Between Heaven and Earth, an environmental, multi-disciplinary performance piece that’s become one of the principal calling-cards of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. Written and directed by Erica Gould, the piece reveals the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the painter Maria Cosway, through their correspondence, through the music they heard together, and through music that Cosway herself wrote. Singing actress Melissa Errico reprises the role of Cosway, and once again soprano Jessica Gould and tenor Tony Boutté will join her at New York City’s historic Fraunces Tavern — where Jefferson wrote some of his letters to Cosway. Christen Clifford will narrate the performance, which starts at 4:00 PM.

Though Cake says he listens to quite a lot of the music of his own time, “I have absolutely no relationship with Classical music, absolutely nil,” he admits. The prospect of hearing music of Jefferson’s time, as Jefferson heard it, “was absolutely delicious to me and un-turn-down-able. The strangeness of the unknown!” He’s especially eager to hear Cosway’s music. “That must have been a gift, to be able to write a piece of music for such an intimidating man, who was himself a musician. …It seems an extraordinary act of love, to write a piece of music for somebody else.”

Melissa Errico as Maria Cosway
At Fraunces Tavern, December 2013.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Just learning more about Jefferson is part of the adventure for Cake, an English native and graduate of Cambridge. “I have to say to my shame that I knew not nearly enough” about him, Cake says. He ticks off the “basic facts”: “the third President and one of the Founding Fathers, and his extraordinary political and philosophical catholicism, and how interested and interesting he was about all sorts of extraordinary things and what a polymath he was. How he’s been claimed by the Left and the Right over the years, and yet he was entirely unique in himself as a man and in his own mind.”

Jefferson’s philosophical concerns — and their immediate impact on the establishment of religious freedom in the fledgling United States — are a principal focus of More Between Heaven and Earth, and in Gould’s script, Jefferson’s deepening involvement in government takes a toll on his relationship with Cosway. Cake says he’s coming to understand “that the public and the private were indivisible, that what the statesman was expressing was what the private person really believed, in all its conflicting ways and its brilliantly complicated ways. It wasn’t watered-down or filtered. It wasn’t politically expedient.”

Source of fascination: Jessica Gould and Tony Boutté sing arias Jefferson and Cosway enjoyed.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Seen at Fraunces Tavern just over a year ago (with Campbell Scott as Jefferson), More Between Heaven and Earth so clearly portrays the link between Jefferson’s public and private selves that the presence of Maria Cosway becomes a tantalizing source of speculation and regret. Especially in Errico’s luminous, beautifully sung portrayal of her — profoundly intelligent, gifted, and wise — one sees Cosway’s potential to make Jefferson a better person and a better leader.

Yet even as he got to know Cosway, Jefferson had begun his troubling relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. And as Errico observed in a conversation with me after the 2013 performance, Cosway didn’t necessarily stand up to the men in her life. A Catholic, already married (unhappily) when she met Jefferson, Cosway couldn’t divorce her husband and run off with another man — no matter how much we’d want her to. Able to do little to improve her own lot, Cosway late in her life blazed a trail for others by founding a school for young women.

A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Cake first came to my attention in his Broadway debut, as Jason in Euripides’ Medea, opposite Fiona Shaw, in 2002, “a lifetime ago,” Cake says. “I’m so happy it still exists strongly in people’s memories. It’s rare that I’m in New York and someone doesn’t say something about that show.” Despite sometimes playing to less-than-full houses in the course of a limited run, “It’s become one of those shows that it seems everyone saw,” he says, adding, “It certainly didn’t seem that way at the time!”

Cake with Fiona Shaw as Medea, 2002.
Please note: I really did see this show.

Endowed with a frankly seductive speaking voice and a rugby-honed physique, Cake can tackle just about any role, and he’s compiled an enviable variety of credits on stage, film, on television, in Britain and in the States, performing in everything from the classics to Desperate Housewives — but thus far very, very little musical theater. “Like most people, I think I do [sing],” he says, “though other people might completely disagree…. I’m getting to the age where all sorts of things deserve to be invested in. So I would love to have a go at musical theater, and I would love to try to fool someone into giving me the opportunity.”

While he won’t sing as Jefferson, “There’s something about being next to a live orchestra and hearing it produce the sound that it does for the first time, that is absolutely magical. It plays such a huge part in this piece.” Performing any piece for the first time often entails “a strange magic,” he says, and in this case, he expects that the newness of the experience, when “strange and slippery things are drifting past you as fast as you’re doing it,” will help to bring out “the really lovely, fragile beauty of their relationship.”

Errico as Cosway.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Ultimately, Cake says, More Between Heaven and Earth — “not quite theater, not quite musical, it’s all of that, and of enormous historical significance” — represents the kind of “ambitious, uncategorizable pieces that go on in New York … a sort of cultural blessing.” “In The New Yorker, there’s a little section I always read called ‘Above and Beyond.’ This fits perfectly into The New Yorker’s ‘Above and Beyond.’”

Salon/Sanctuary Concerts Presents
More Between Heaven and Earth

Script and Stage Direction by Erica Gould
Program Concept and Music Research by Jessica Gould
Fraunces Tavern
54 Pearl Street, New York City
January 18, 4:00
For more information, click here.

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