The all-female cast, crew and creative team of Emilia briefly dethroned William Shakespeare from his home at the Globe last year. Charity Wakefield, who starred as the playwright, tells Natasha Tripney about making him unlikeable but sexy, taking the play to the West End and turning to the ‘organisational guru’ for inspiration
When Clare Perkins delivered the closing lines of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play about the life of Emilia Lanier – one of the first female English poets to be published and possibly the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets – the roar of the audience was something to behold. It was the sound of people witnessing not just a piece of historical drama, but an act of occupation and reclamation. Shakespeare was, briefly, dethroned in his own home and the stage given over to the women whose stories had gone untold and unheard.
Following a run of just 11 performances last summer, Emilia is transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End and Charity Wakefield will once again play Shakespeare opposite Perkins, Saffron Coomber and Adelle Leonce – the three women who play Emilia at different stages of her life.
“There’s huge power in this play. We realised that on the very first night at Shakespeare’s Globe,” Wakefield says, in a cafe by the Strand, ahead of her first visit to the new space.
While it was an intimidating prospect, the beauty of playing Shakespeare is that everyone has ideas and opinions about who he was or whether or not he wrote his plays, she adds. “People will see what they see.”
Wakefield is very conscious she’s playing the playwright as seen through Emilia’s eyes. “He’s the Shakespeare Emilia remembers.” Even so, she has clearly thought a lot about who her Shakespeare is, and what drives him. “We know he wasn’t often in Stratford. He had a family and, despite being so articulate about love and loss and grief, he wasn’t particularly there for his wife and children.”
The play explores the idea that Shakespeare “mined his friends for their experiences and mined Emilia for her words – and plagiarised her”.
Wakefield describes Shakespeare as someone who “must have spent time out on the docks of the Thames, in bars, hiding behind curtains at court”. Her approach to the role “is that he’s someone who’s always observing other people and is not particularly virtuous or kind”. She equates this to the way many film producers and theatre directors behave. “They find it difficult to be happy in their own skin.”
She also recalls past experiences working with comedians – she cites Eddie Izzard as an example – and the “lighthouse effect” of being in their company. “When the light is shining on you, you feel great, as if you’re really interesting. When the light moves on, you’re dismayed because you realise they were only gathering material.”
Her Shakespeare definitely had “the gift of the gab”. Because the play merges modern themes, with the playing style of the Elizabethan era, she gets to talk directly to the audience. “You can make them laugh, win them over.”
According to Lloyd Malcolm, Wakefield manages “to harness a version of a man who at the start of his career is a wide-eyed, passionate artist, who goes on to become a confident and cocksure maestro”. In her performance, she “dances a line between making him deeply unlikeable and incredibly sexy. It’s been so fun watching her discover him”.
As a company, it has spent a lot of time exploring what it is to occupy space. She points out that we’re both sitting with our legs crossed. “Women sit in a more complicated way.” There’s a lot of effort involved in being female in the world. She’s come to realise it’s less about adding a “male” quality to her performance, more a case of “stripping away the affectations that women use. This creates something neutral – and that neutral body looks male”. She’s fascinated by this idea. “It’s sometimes not that men are being male, it’s that men are being human while women have to do all this stuff to be women.”
Wakefield’s grandfather was the actor James Hayter, who won a BAFTA in the 1950s for his performance as Samuel Pickwick in the BBC production of The Pickwick Papers. Though he died when she was a child, she grew up with an understanding that acting was a viable career choice.
Her first experience of performance was in a friend’s community theatre production of a Philip Ridley play in Sussex. She went on to star in a Hastings amateur dramatic society production of Great Expectations, which the company then took to Chicago. That was the experience that sold her on theatre.
After graduating from Oxford School of Drama, she spent a couple of years making fringe theatre and writing her own work. There’s this idea, she says, that you’re supposed to get your big break right away, but she stresses that with a few exceptions “it doesn’t work that way”. The shows during a formative time like this can also be “the best theatrical experiences you have”.
Screen roles followed. She played Marianne Dashwood in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Marilyn Munster – the so-called “normal” cousin – in Mockingbird Lane, Bryan Fuller’s re-imagining of the US sitcom, a pilot that ended up not being picked up, and Mary Boleyn in the screen version of Wolf Hall. This was particularly satisfying as it felt like a “marriage of theatre and TV”. Rylance used his experience at the Globe to create “a very communal atmosphere on set”, she says. The cast spent time together and played games that people would have played in Elizabethan times. “The stage work fed into what ended up on screen.”
Spending time in both the UK and LA means she is well placed to notice shifts in the industry. “Things are changing, definitely”, she says. “Women telling their stories and being more open about their own experience now means organisations are making more of an effort to create working guidelines.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Picking strawberries, selling veg and planting seedlings for a small farm shop in East Sussex.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Six short plays at Brighton’s Komedia theatre, written in response to the war in Iraq. We had Q&A sessions after each performance. It was very raw and immediate work.
What’s your next job?
After Emilia in the West End I will be filming series one of The Great, written by Tony McNamara for Hulu.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That as a student leaving drama school you have so much to give the industry, by virtue of your newness to it. That we, as older industry professionals, are excited to see what you have to say. If you are an actor, look to directors, producers, stage managers, writers that are new like you and make work together. It’s good experience even if you have no budget – you’ll learn so much.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I really admire anyone who makes independent work. It’s brave to do that, and risky, but so much more interesting than to look at the market and say, what will sell this year? Let’s cash in on that… Look at how wonderful Richard Billingham’s Ray and Liz is. Or Deborah Davies’ and Tony McNamara’s The Favourite. And of course, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
You just have to jump in head first.
If people have negative experiences, if they feel mistreated or abused, there’s more of a sense they will be listened to. “There’s also,” she adds, “a more nuanced understanding of the difference between the way something is intended and the way it might be received.”
Recently the Casting Directors’ Guild spoke of a “growing trend” in the entertainment industry of focusing on an actor’s online following, but Wakefield says it’s been par for the course in LA for at least five years. “It’s a version of trying to calculate someone’s bankability – it’s just more visible. People being cast for things other than their acting is not new.”
Wakefield is keen to focus on her writing again, and has a couple of ideas in development, but the challenge now is in translating Emilia to its new home. She’s never been in a rehearsal room quite like this one, she says, adding that the manifesto of the Globe’s artistic director Michelle Terry has spread through the building. For one thing, working hours were 11am to 5pm so mothers could have more time with their children. Wakefield adds that Emilia director Nicole Charles’ way of working is non-hierarchal, rather than top-down.
“That’s been maintained even as we go into the West End – anything people want to say is given space and time.” Charles also insists on audience democracy, the idea that nothing should happen in the theatre that can’t be seen by everyone in the audience, which has necessitated the reworking of some scenes. “This has been a learning curve but helped create a real sense of ownership over the work,” Wakefield says.
She adds the production is taking the approach of Marie Kondo – the ‘organising guru’ and reality show sensation – when preparing for the transfer. As one of the original cast members, she needs to look at her performances and ask: “Do I love this? Does it bring me joy? Will it work in the new space? If not, let it go.”
Born: Tunbridge Wells, 1980
Training: Oxford School of Drama
• The Rivals, Southwark Playhouse, London (2010)
• The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre, London (2011)
• Seminar, Hampstead Theatre, London (2014)
• Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2018)
• Sense and Sensibility, BBC (2008)
• Wolf Hall, BBC (2015)
• Doctor Who Christmas special, BBC (2016)
Agent: Kirk Whelan-Foran at United Agents
Emilia runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until June 15. Go to nimaxtheatres.com for further information