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Roles fit for acting royalty

The Royal Shakespeare Company [1]’s new artistic director Gregory Doran began his tenure with an alphabetical coup. Under his predecessor Michael Boyd, the RSC was brought to you by the letter “C” for company. For Doran, the key letter is most definitely “S”. “S for Shakespeare” and “S for stars”.

Over the past decade, the RSC has grown a lot of its own talent with such actors as Jonathan Slinger and Pippa Nixon rising steadily through the ranks. But under Doran, stage greats including Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart and, of course, his partner and long-term collaborator Antony Sher, are much more in evidence. And this theme is set to continue. In October, Doran will return his former Hamlet and current TV favourite David Tennant to the Stratford stable for his production of Richard II.

[pullquote]The RSC gives you the chance to really, really investigate Shakespeare. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I know him[/pullquote]

So where does this leave the RSC faithful? Katy Stephens was undoubtedly a beneficiary of Boyd’s ensemble-led philosophy and following her two-and-a-half-year stint in the acclaimed Histories cycle, she was rewarded with the iconic roles of Rosalind and Regan. This summer, Stephens returns to the RSC to appear in Titus Andronicus as Tamora, Queen of the Goths.

“That’s the wonderful thing about the RSC,” Stephens says. “They invest in their actors. You’re constantly learning – not just from directors, movement and voice coaches, but also from other actors. You just don’t get that chance in a six-week rehearsal period, because it’s all you can do to get the play on.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, she’s a big fan of the aforementioned “C” word. “It would be a shame to lose that democracy,” she says of the shift in emphasis, explaining that the closeness of actors transforms into “a shorthand” and “risk-taking in the rehearsal room” that then feeds “a palpable energy on stage”.

And although she has relished her juicy, scene-stealing cameos – Eros in Antony and Cleopatra and Francis Feeble in Henry VI Part 2 – Stephens is definitely a company player, citing the “single bow” for a lead actor as something that really riles.

“Although they’re sometimes well-deserved, everyone in the cast, everyone behind the scenes, both associated with the show and across the building, brought that particular play to life. When an actor steps forward for individual applause, I always cringe.”

She does, however, recognise that senior company members do carry certain responsibilities, particularly for younger actors. “I know what it’s like to come in and feel you don’t know anything about verse or Shakespeare or Roman gods,” she admits. “I’ve worked with some brilliantly supportive lead actors and, eventually, it becomes your turn.” Stephens believes that it’s the cross-company support that makes an ensemble “an amazing, fertile learning ground”.

Katy Stephens (Rosalind) and Jonjo O'Neill (Orlando) in As You Like It in 2009. Photo: Ellie Kurttz [2]
Katy Stephens (Rosalind) Jonjo O’Neill (Orlando) in As You Like It in 2009. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Stephens has spent the best part of her career in companies, starting, aged 14, with the resolutely non-hierarchical National Youth Theatre. After drama school, she spent four years touring with Orchard and Pocket theatre companies, loading vans and putting up sets, before joining the resident ensemble at Colchester’s Mercury theatre. Her career, as she puts it, has involved hopping from one “crazy family” to another.

But Shakespeare is very important to her as well. “The RSC gives you the chance to really, really investigate Shakespeare. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I know him.”

And as if to prove her knowledge, Stephens begins to talk about Tamora and her place among Shakespeare’s other great leading female characters – Lady Macbeth and “warrior queen” Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI. The cross-textual forensics clearly excite her: “Working through Shakespeare can be like detective work,” she says.

Stephens admits she wasn’t always the Bard’s biggest fan. “I didn’t understand it. I thought it was elitist and scholarly. I thought it had no place in my world. Now I know that you only have to be human to understand him.”

That understanding, she continues, changes with time. “With Shakespeare’s women, you’re seeing them at different stages of life. His women age with him – as he gets older and wiser, they become more complete: Cleopatra being the most beautifully written of all.”

Two years ago, Stephens was given the opportunity to play Egypt’s queen when she replaced Kathryn Hunter. But there are some stellar female roles that she acknowledges may now have passed her by. “I feel sad for parts I’ll never play – Ophelia, for example, and Juliet.”

Her canonical to-do list is surprising: Laertes comes top, followed by Henry V and another stab at Lady M. “I’ve played her twice before, but, given what I’ve learned at the RSC, my toes curl looking back.”

However, the wishlist is not confined to Shakespeare, and she is excited by plans to extend beyond the folio under Doran, for whom she’s full of praise. “Greg was the perfect successor to Michael, because no one loves Shakespeare more than Greg. His passion for Shakespeare, the romance of it, is just completely infectious.”

Titus Andronicus runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon [3], from May 16 to October 26