Male Shakespearean roles taken by actresses are often described as ‘gender neutral’, but Golda Rosheuvel’s Othello at Liverpool’s Everyman is very much a woman. It’s a positive step for gay women in theatre, she tells Catherine Jones
When Golda Rosheuvel was asked to read for the role of Othello, she instinctively felt it would be right to play the general as a woman. What she wasn’t expecting was for director Gemma Bodinetz to agree.
Bodinetz, artistic director of Liverpool Everyman, said that for her staging of the play, which opens this week, she wanted something that was “resonant, that’s electrifying to the times we live in now as well as a beautiful portrait of something that was written 400 years ago”.
Changing Othello’s gender was the first step in envisioning all those things for her new production. “I suppose having lighted upon a thought, reading it, everything seemed to become a little bit more present by Othello being a woman.” And the actor that Bodinetz thought was right to do it was Rosheuvel.
Great actresses have long played Shakespeare’s great leading men, but the characters often remain men, or at least gender-neutral. For Rosheuvel, who previously played a gender-swapped Mercutio at Shakespeare’s Globe, playing Othello as a lesbian woman was the most natural thing in the world. Playing the character as a man, she says, would have been much tougher.
“I would have had to really think about how to play the role if I was going to do it as a man,” the actor continues. “Of course, I don’t have to ask that question because I’m here playing it as a woman, which is what I wanted to do, and what the director wanted to do.” The actor adds: “The stars and the universe aligned at that moment.”
Othello was a big draw for the 47-year-old when she was invited to audition for the Everyman Rep’s second season. Another was working with a female director, and a third was the presence of Nick Bagnall.
The Guyana-born Rosheuvel worked with actor-turned-director Bagnall last year on a project at the National Studio. He caught her interest by turning up from the Everyman’s inaugural rep season with a copy of Manfred Karge’s play The Conquest of the South Pole tucked under his arm.
“I thought, ‘Who is this man?’ ” Rosheuvel recalls with a smile. “He’s brought this bonkers play. I thought, ‘I’m going to watch you. I like you.’ ”
While Shakespeare is currently the focus of Rosheuvel’s attention, she is also an integral part of the 14-strong rep company, with roles in three of the four productions being staged between March and July. And she is enjoying the special camaraderie that comes with being part of a close-knit troupe of players.
She played Cherry, queen bee of the Fandango girls in Bodinetz’s revival of Paint Your Wagon in March, and will complete the season with The Big I Am, Robert Farquhar’s anarchic adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which is being directed by Bagnall.
The more conventional Paint Your Wagon was something of a return to the London Studio Centre-trained Rosheuvel’s acting roots. Her early stage career was spent in a series of large-scale musicals, many of them touring productions here in the UK and abroad in the US and Japan.
What was your first non-acting job?
Stage door, Adelphi Theatre, London.
What was your first professional theatre job?
European tour of Hair.
What’s your next job?
The Big I Am.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Keep on top of your finances and get a job that can keep you in pennies when you’re not working. I learned the hard way.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My beautiful partner Shireen Mula. Family and friends. Viola Davis, Judi Dench, Daisy Maywood, Jonathan Livingstone, Ian Rickson, Daniel Kramer, Emma Rice, Gemma Bodinetz, Bryony Hannah, Nick Bagnall, Nick Holder, Gareth Snook.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Learn your lines, then you can play.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
An athlete… a Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
It really depends on the show. I’m always in early. Food has to be eaten for energy, and a warm-up done, then there’ll be weird shit I do during the show.
She was given her first experience in what she dubs “straight plays” by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the 2006 season of Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and The Tempest.
“I was appearing in [now artistic director of English National Opera] Daniel Kramer’s production of Hair at the Gate when the RSC asked me to come in,” she says. “I remember my agent at the time calling me to tell me I’d got the roles. And I genuinely didn’t believe her because I felt, and possibly it was the times we were living in, that they’d got the wrong person. That someone would suddenly go: ‘We’re only kidding.’ ”
“It was a dream come true. But I didn’t believe it, because there was possibly a part of me that didn’t think I deserved it, as a black actress. It was a little bit scary that they would say yes.”
The RSC was also her first experience of rep, and she says it was “thrilling to be in a company that works and plays and discovers, that hunts. And to work with Shakespeare and that language, and have people who help you.”
One of those people was voice coach Cicely Berry, who helped and encouraged her to grasp the essence of Shakespeare’s text, and whom Rosheuvel calls her “absolute hero”.
I’ve never been an actress who goes after a job. It’s not a path I have taken
Since then, a series of theatres and companies have come calling, from the National and the Globe to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the Young Vic. But Rosheuvel insists she has “never been an actress who goes after a job. It’s not a path I have taken. The chips are laid down where they’re laid down to me.”
Those chips have included work with directors who have particularly inspired her, including collaborations with Kramer on Angels in America and Romeo and Juliet, as well as with Ian Rickson in Electra at the Old Vic.
“The first time I felt I had a voice in the room was with Ian Rickson,” she says. “I just continued doing what I was doing, but his energy, and the way he creates a company, and the way he empowers his actors, made me go: ‘Oh, what I’m doing is actually great. What I have to say is valid.’ ” She adds: “It completely changed my life, my confidence. It gave me the confidence.”
Rosheuvel is measured and thoughtful in her speech, which is punctuated by sudden bursts of intensity. One subject that exercises her is what she sees as a continued lack of opportunity for creatives who don’t fit a certain mould.
“I can’t tell you if I’m being discriminated against,” she shrugs, “because I’m not in the room when my picture gets given to a director or a producer. But can I tell you that I’m not represented? Yes, I can. Because I don’t see stories about gay women, I don’t see the stories that have the lead protagonist as female and black and gay.”
She emphasises: “Wow, three boxes, oh my God! How dangerous would that be? Wouldn’t it be frightening to pay for something like that, in a storyline on television or on film, or even in a theatre?”
All three boxes are most definitely ticked with the Everyman’s Othello. “Does it surprise you?” she asks of the decision to recast Shakespeare’s general as a woman. “Because it doesn’t surprise me. It was the next step wasn’t it? And I think that’s what I’m interested in, the normality of this.”
When we meet, the cast is still blocking scenes ahead of digging deeper into the text. But Bodinetz has said she hopes the production will bring a fresh focus to the play.
“This piece is about human behaviour and the forensic look at that behaviour, and how humans respond,” Rosheuvel offers. “How a woman responds to a rumour that her wife is having an affair with a man. And we know by the end of the play she responds by killing. By murdering her wife and killing herself. That interests me as well. And I know that the female violence is something that interests Gemma.”
Should it shock people, Rosheuvel ponders – that men and women might feel the same emotions, including the same powerful jealousy?
“Men are human, aren’t they?” she says. “A man’s jealousy is the same as a woman’s jealousy. Circumstances are different. But there are things an audience should be intrigued by, shocked by, forced to be moved by. A woman slapping another woman. A woman killing another woman. That’s going to be the interesting reaction.”
Born: Guyana, South America, 1970
Training: London Studio Centre
• Electra, Old Vic (2014)
• Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe (2017)
• Othello, Liverpool Everyman (2018)
Agent: Joe Hutton, BWH
Othello opens at the Liverpool Everyman on April 28