Pippa Nixon: ‘Actresses can now have a Shakespeare canon of their own’

Pippa Nixon rehearsing for The Tempest at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo; Marc Brenner Pippa Nixon rehearsing for The Tempest at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo; Marc Brenner

Within a year, we’ll have had a Malvolia and a Queen Lear to add to the female Hamlets, Julius Caesars and Henry IVs of recent years. It looks, all of a sudden, as if change is afoot. Pinpoint where it began and you might suggest Pippa Nixon’s turn as the Bastard in King John for the Royal Shakespeare Company back in 2012 – one of the most ostensibly masculine roles in the canon.

Real name Philip Faulconbridge, offspring of Richard the Lionheart, he’s a ferocious figure: a ruthless mercenary, who cracks lewd jokes in front of his grandmother and contradicts himself freely. Like Falstaff, the Bastard’s almost too big for his play. Literary critic Harold Bloom believed him the most rounded and real of all Shakespeare’s characters.

Looking back now, Nixon’s surprised by how big a deal it felt. “Both Maria [Aberg – the director] and I were quite nervous about it,” she recalls. “Maria got quite a lot of backlash from people at the RSC – this was back in the early days of gender-blind casting. Half the room accepted it and half needed convincing. People would still refer to me as ‘him’.”

Pippa Nixon as the Bastard in the RSC's King John. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Pippa Nixon as the Bastard in the RSC’s King John. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A lot has changed since then, not least a classical actress’ career prospects. Nixon talks about it with relish. “Before, actresses would say, Rosalind, Lady M, Beatrice, but to be able to look at Puck and Hal and Hamlet – that’s awesome. You look at someone like Simon Russell Beale or Mark Rylance and see the canon of parts they’ve played and it makes you go, ‘Okay, perhaps I could have a canon of my own.’ ”

Those comparisons don’t feel entirely unreasonable. At 36, Nixon is one of the most accomplished classical actors in the country. Breezy and quick to laughter, she’s racked up a range of key roles already, winning an Ian Charleson commendation for her work at Shakespeare’s Globe and becoming one of the leading lights of Michael Boyd’s RSC ensemble. Over three years, she was a Titania with “a strong sexual spark”, a stylish Lady Anne and an outstanding Ophelia: “A passionate schoolgirl fatally besotted by Hamlet,” as Michael Billington put it.

The run ended with a Rosalind for the history books, again under Aberg’s direction. In a sploshy, folksy music festival setting, her hair slicked into a Shoreditch side-parting, Nixon was first-rate: perky, cocksure and clumsy. You fell for her from the stalls. Billington ranked her up alongside the very best: Vanessa Redgrave, Adrian Lester, Susan Fleetwood.

Very few actors – particularly women – are allowed to shapeshift like this. How many Hermias have played the Bastard? “I think I have lots of elements of all those characters within me. There’s an Ariel in me, a vulnerable, delicate, fragile part of myself, as there is a Rosalind, spirited, adventurous and daring, and even a Bastard, harnessing that Joan of Arc revolutionary.”

Partly it’s about permission, she says: “The more people see me, they push me: she can do this and this – can she do this?” But that permission has to come from herself as well – a will to tackle a role head-on and invent.

For her, it’s the big pull to Shakespeare: “The reason theatres do his plays time and again is that there’s no definitive way to do them. You can look at them from any number of angles.” The problem is that doing so takes trust. “You don’t always get the artistic licence.”

Now, Nixon is about to take another ‘male’ role: Ariel in The Tempest, twice referred to with a male pronoun. Women played the role in the Restoration era, but these days, it largely goes to men: Ben Whishaw, Colin Morgan, Tom Byam Shaw in recent years. Nixon’s never seen a woman play the part.

“It was one of those ‘must play’ parts,” she says, speaking at double speed during a short lunch break. “You’ve got so many different starting points.” She and director Dominic Dromgoole – this is his last show at Shakespeare’s Globe – settled early on: “She gets called ‘delicate’ a number of times, so we’re riffing on that: physically, but also psychologically. The idea of being trapped in a tree for 12 years by Sycorax; the trauma of that.


Q&A: Pippa Nixon

What was your first job? 24Seven for Granada Television.
What is your next job? Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the Dorfman, National Theatre. 
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s a long game. Some people fly straight out of drama school. Others take flight later. Ultimately, you want a career with longevity and versatility, so don’t worry about how long it takes.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Friends of mine that have battled through really hard and difficult patches in their careers and have come out the other side and smashed it on stage or screen. Their tenacity and determination is completely inspiring.
What’s your best advice for auditions? You don’t have to have all the answers. The audition doesn’t have to be perfect: to be able to show that you are reaching towards something rather than having got there is much more important, and it takes the pressure off.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? No idea – but I probably wouldn’t be living in England.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Having time and space before a show to warm up and get my head in the right place.

“Over the course of the play she discovers emotions, what it is to be human. It’s as if learning about feelings is like learning a foreign language and, by the end, she says to Prospero, ‘If that were me, I would be deeply moved.’ It’s as if she’s harnessed an understanding of human emotion.”

It will be her first time performing in the indoor Sam Wanamaker theatre. “Every actor has said how much they love it: the intimacy, the subtlety.” Shakespeare allows actors a sense of space. Rather than studios, you end up in big, theatrical spaces like the Swan or the Globe. There’s no hiding, Nixon says. “You have to enjoy having the audience around you.”

Raised in Bedfordshire, the eldest of four siblings, Nixon was acting by the age of 12. It won out over music and sport. “I loved playing music, but I hated the practice. I didn’t mind the sports training, but I hated the races. With acting, I loved rehearsals and performances. It was the first thing in my life that really resonated strongly with me. I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life.”

She trained at the Manchester School of Theatre, then one of the few accredited drama schools that awarded students degrees. At her final show, playing Liz Morden in Our Country’s Good, Nixon was spotted by a casting director and asked to audition for a CITV show, 24Seven. “I got the job the following day and started the Monday after I finished drama school.”

Nixon as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Roya Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nixon as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Roya Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In recent years, she’s pushed to get back on to screen. It’s not hard to get stuck in theatre. “Work breeds work, and, of course, you want the work, but sometimes you have to go, ‘What is it that I really want?’ You have to be very disciplined to keep balance in your career.”

This approach has led to a couple of acclaimed indie films, both London-set thrillers: a kidnap drama called Panic, and Containment, about a tower block on lockdown. The latter went to Cannes last summer.

“I’ve done theatre for so long that I’ve a natural ‘at homeness’ on stage. My ambition now is to have that feeling on camera.” As Nixon sees it, however, the two aren’t so removed from one another. “Like Shakespeare, the camera asks to see you completely. It can smell fakery a mile off, but it’s also incredibly subtle so you need to do a lot of the work beforehand and, when the camera’s on, be totally in the moment. The more screen time I have, the more comfortable I feel.”

Nonetheless, this will be quite a theatre-heavy year. After The Tempest, Nixon heads back up the river for her National Theatre debut, starring alongside Ben Miles and Elizabeth McGovern in Alexei Kaye Campbell’s new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia. A comedy about two diplomat couples, it’s set against the backdrop of the political unrest in Greece in the late 1960s, which eventually led to a military coup. “I found it quite unnerving,” she hints. “I’m still trying to get my head around the politics.”

However, that research process isn’t a million miles from character work for Shakespeare; new writing being as rigorous as classics. “Simon [Godwin] said to me, ‘I can tell you’ve done Shakespeare because of the way you approach the text, the way you follow the thoughts. It really helps.’ I think that’s true. If you can work with language like that, you can do anything.”

Photo: Faye Thomas
Photo: Faye Thomas

CV: Pippa Nixon

Born: Bedford, 1979
Training: Manchester School of Theatre
Landmark productions: Days of Significance (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007), King John (RSC, 2012), As You Like It (RSC, 2013)
Awards: Ian Charleson Commendation for Jessica in Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2007)
Agent: Independent Talent Group

The Tempest runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until April 22. Sunset at the Villa Thalia opens at the National Theatre on May 10