Lucy Phelps interview: 'Children can have better ideas on how to do Shakespeare than the directors'
Every year, London is treated to a number of productions courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which transfer to London and showcase a little of what has been going on in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the company is based.
Currently starring in the latter two of the trio, Lucy Phelps chatted to us about her early experiences with Shakespeare’s words, how their meaning can change, and the role she would most like to play from his repertoire.
What were some of your earliest experiences with Shakespeare?
It was mainly school, but I’m from Worcestershire, bordering Warwickshire, so my main reference point for theatre was largely the RSC. Any Shakespeare productions I went to see were in Stratford. I remember going to see Twelfth Night with my school there, and also King Lear, but I was quite young when I saw that which was a bit scary.
How old were you when you first saw Lear?!
I think I must’ve been in primary school, my mum and dad must have either forgotten what happened in the story, or thought “she can handle that”! It was whatever the Lear was that was happening in the late ‘90s.
Edit: This could have been Yukio Ninagawa's 1999 production starring Nigel Hawthorne in his last stage role
I was lucky that my mum and dad really loved theatre, I caught the bug very early on for this incredible poetic language that seems to be able to express all the different experiences of the human condition in the most incredible expressions. Maybe I didn’t think of it like that at the time, but I certainly did think it sounded great.
How did that change as you got older?
When you say some of the words, they make you feel certain things and when I was a child, I don’t think I was very analytical about the emotions that they would express or that I was feeling. I responded to it on an emotional level, but I think when you have that connection from a young age you don’t really lose it. I think you either go with it from a young age, or it doesn’t even interest you.
A lot of children’s first contact with Shakespeare is through studying at school, but you were lucky enough to have been exposed to it much earlier. That must have put you in good stead for your acting future?
I studied Shakespeare throughout my GCSEs and A-Levels: I studied Measure for Measure at A-Level so I was excited when I saw the RSC were doing it, let alone that I would be auditioning for it because I think it’s the most wonderful play. I went on to train at LAMDA and often the classical pieces I chose to be assessed on were the Shakespeare ones.
The RSC works with very young children with its fantastic education department – as young as four and five-years-old – perhaps not intensively with the language, but very hard with the themes and overarching stories. I observed a workshop with children who were about ten-years-old working on Macbeth, and the first scene with the witches, and they were coming up with some better ideas than some directors have! That’s not a joke!
What are some of the Shakespearean roles you’ve had in the past?
I did Juliet at one point, and Emilia in Othello, Viola in Twelfth Night. Standard trodden path rather than anything off the beaten track, but I did a lot of Juliet. Once you start to realise the wealth of his plays and see the women in a play like The Two Noble Kinsmen, or Queen Anne in Richard III, when you’re younger they play it safe with you. But children could be exposed to the breadth of his plays, and with the opportunity of more women taking on the male roles, there’s a whole wealth of things young people can go for. We have Claire Price playing Petruchia in our production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Are there any roles you would like to give a go, in that case?
Everybody would desire to have a go at Hamlet or Henry V. I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do around Shakespeare and think about who I want to take on next.
Did you know much of As You Like It and Measure for Measure before you were cast?
I hadn’t seen As You Like It before I auditioned for it which I couldn’t believe because Rosalind is many people’s favourite character, and I had this woman lacking in my life. But I’m very familiar with Isabella, I studied her at school.
Has appearing in both shows in rep proved challenging?
Err… yes! In terms of the amount of text, no, simply because the plays are so different that they don’t mix over. But it’s a great challenge because while they’re both highly intelligent, their experiences are worlds apart. One has everything to learn, grow and explore emotionally, and the other is unable to do that and has, in my opinion, everything taken away from her. It’s been hugely enriching and satisfying.
Having grown up with the RSC, it must have been quite affirming to have been cast by them?
My vision of theatre was the RSC growing up so that was the be-all and end-all, until I got to London and realised I was a bit naïve to think that! There’s a prestigious nature to the company, I thought if you’re going to do it anywhere, do it there! And we’re also a company in for 15 months working together on three shows, and it’s one of the last companies in the UK that does that now.