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Meet Charlotte Charke, the cross-dressing heroine and first female Hamlet

A painted scene from Colley Cibber’s Damon and Phillida in the Tate Gallery. Charke plays the lead male character, right A painted scene from Colley Cibber’s Damon and Phillida in the Tate Gallery. Charke plays the lead male character, right
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Charlie Ryall was introduced to 18th-century theatremaker Charlotte Charke at the age of 10 by her father, actor David Ryall. She tells Nick Smurthwaite why her play about Charke’s life has been many years in the making

What does an obscure 18th-century actor, author and entrepreneur have to say to audiences 200 years on? Quite a lot, according to the actor-writer Charlie Ryall whose play about Charlotte Charke, Indebted to Chance, opens this week at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre.

“Charlotte was a heroine,” says Ryall, daughter of the distinguished character actor David Ryall. “She was the first British woman to play Hamlet, one of the first women to run a theatre company, author of an autobiography, and one of the first women to live much of her life dressed as a man.”

Ryall has lived with the story of Charlotte Charke since she was a child. In 1999, her father appeared as the celebrated actor-manager Colley Cibber, father of Charke, in a solo play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ryall senior presented his daughter with Charke’s autobiography, which he came across while researching the play.

Charlie Ryall. Photo: Chris Marchant
Charlie Ryall. Photo: Chris Marchant

“As I was 10 at the time, I put it to one side and forgot about it,” recalls Ryall. “It was only years later, after I’d started acting, that he mentioned it again and we started to read it together. It’s quite dry, but once you tune in there is something unique and irresistible about the way she expresses herself, and she led an extraordinarily unconventional life.”

The real spur to completing her play, subtitled The Unaccountable Life of Charlotte Charke, was a commission from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to perform it at a theatre festival in Russia four years ago. It was a first draft and not the finished play she and her father originally had in mind.

David Ryall died shortly after and his daughter resolved to make the play she wanted it to be, partly as a tribute to her father and partly because of her growing fascination with Charke.

With her friend, director Jenny Eastop, and a group of actors she’d been working with, Ryall embarked on months of workshops, readings and revised drafts until she was satisfied that the play was as good as she could make it.

She and Eastop are playing it in repertory at the Old Red Lion with an updated version of Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, from 1706, the play for which Charke was best known as an actor. As Captain Plume, one of the leading roles, Charke was able to indulge her penchant for cross-dressing. At other times, she also played the leading female role of Sylvia, who disguises herself as a man.

Charlie Ryall and Andy Secombe. Photo: Chris Marchant
Charlie Ryall and Andy Secombe. Photo: Chris Marchant

Ryall says: “The Recruiting Officer is the play Charlotte and others are rehearsing in Indebted to Chance, so it kind of made sense to do that as well. It is a heavy workload for the company of eight actors, but they have been incredibly keen and committed from the start.”

So how prominent a talent was Charke at a time when actors were idolised? “She didn’t reach the heights of David Garrick or Peg Woffington,” says Ryall, “but she played a lot of leading roles, she knew everyone and was part of a company run by the author and satirist Henry Fielding. She was also renowned for her marionette theatre, which she toured around the country.

“In her autobiography, she talks a lot about her work in the theatre. It was obviously the most important thing in her life. Her father, as actor-manager of Drury Lane, was part of the Establishment and I think Charlotte reacted against that. She once played her father in an unflattering satirical sketch by Fielding. He never forgave her for that.”

I hope I’ve done a good job of telling a story about a vibrant and pioneering woman

Is Ryall concerned that audiences won’t have heard of Charke or her father? “I decided to take a leaf out of Charlotte’s book and not worry about the obscurity of the characters, or the fact that a lot of what I’ve written is based on conjecture,” Ryall says. “I hope I’ve done a good job of telling a story about a vibrant and pioneering woman of that time. It is written in modern language and it’s about things that still concern us today – wanting to express yourself, staying solvent and being who you are.”

Unhappily, Ryall’s applications for project funding were not successful, so she turned to online crowdfunding, as well as dipping into her own pocket. “I’ve always been very up front with the company about funding, or lack of it. Charlotte was always struggling financially, so in some ways it made me feel closer to her.”

Despite having a very successful actor father, Ryall’s early years in the business were far from easy. After failing to get into drama school, she attended acting classes at City Lit in London while working in a call centre during the day.

From the start she was determined to be proactive about creating work: “Waiting for the phone to ring was never an option. Making my own work was the way ahead even though there are those in the business who believe if you’re not being paid a certain amount you must be an amateur. Without making my own work I don’t know how I would have acquired the experience and resilience I have now.”

Indebted to Chance and The Recruiting Officer are playing at the Old Red Lion, Islington until December 1

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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