Actor and writer Charlotte Josephine: ‘UK theatre could do with being braver – it should be visceral’
Having made her name performing hard-hitting, self-penned shows, Charlotte Josephine is playing Mercutio in the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet. She tells Natasha Tripney why portraying a man is freeing, exposing and inspiring
Charlotte Josephine speaks really quickly. Words tumble out of her. In part, this is down to excitement. She’s in the process of rehearsing the role of Mercutio in Erica Whyman’s production of Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Mercutio is, hands down, one of her favourite characters, someone she has always wanted to play. “I’m still pinching myself,” she says.
Josephine made her name with self-penned solo show Bitch Boxer. Set during the 2012 Olympics, at which women were first allowed to compete in boxing, it explored the pressure of being a woman in a man’s world. On stage, she’s an incredibly kinetic performer, which comes across in her conversation.
Playing Mercutio as a woman, she tells me, feels “really current”. It has made her think about the play in new ways and re-examine the language. As an example, she quotes Mercutio’s line “Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze”, and says: “For a woman, that line says so much about the male gaze and being looked at and that’s thrilling to me.”
Cross-gender casting – for want of a better term – is becoming increasingly common, but some roles seem to receive this treatment more frequently than others. There is more likely to be a female Feste or Rosencrantz than an Iago or a Richard III.
While Golda Rosheuvel played Mercutio in Daniel Kramer’s divisive production at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, a female Mercutio still feels like a bold choice. Josephine puts that down to the character’s fondness for “fighting and sexy, rude chat”.
She says: “We’re still not used to thinking about women playing those parts, not used to seeing such explicit desire for both fighting and fucking explored from a female body.”
That, Josephine explains, is both freeing to her as a performer and exposing. Mercutio is a character who demands to be seen, she says. “Sometimes under the male gaze, I’d really rather not be seen, so it’s pushing all my braver buttons to be that big.”
Whyman – “my new hero” – has been encouraging her to take up space on stage like the character would, to use the way she moves, even the routes she takes around the stage, to say: “This is mine. I own this.”
Q&A: Charlotte Josephine
What was your first non-theatre job?
Saturday girl in a barbers in Hemel Hempstead, aged 12.
What was your first theatre job?
Work I’d made with Snuff Box Theatre. But Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse was the first time someone else paid me.
What is your next job?
I’ve written some new things recently that will be made later this year. Watch this space.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Drink more water than tea.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My mum definitely inspired my work ethic. We’re grafters.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. I get this mad fear that I’ve got a bogey just before we start and have to desperately ask people to check my nostrils.
For the women in the audience who, like her, have never felt much like a Juliet, she hopes it will prove inspiring. “It should be provocative in every sense. It should provoke discussion about the boxes we put ourselves in.”
Josephine continues: “I think I take up less space as a woman sometimes – vocally and physically.” She attributes the speed of her speech to the fact that she might be interrupted. “I apologise for myself without realising or make myself small without realising, and all of those things Mercutio doesn’t do.”
She talks about gender as a sliding scale. Playing Mercutio, she explains, requires her to move rapidly along that scale and occupy different positions on it, sometimes simultaneously, to flirt like a woman one minute and like a man the next.
Josephine always used to feel that “theatre was for posh white people”. She grew up in Hemel Hempstead and used to go to Watford Palace Theatre, which to her “felt really posh and grand”.
She would go to London a couple of times a year to see a show and, while she adored the live nature of theatre and the excitement of “being in the room with them, that they needed me to be there for the story to happen, to complete that loop”, she was less thrilled by the experience of theatregoing with its “fucking expensive crisps” and long queues for the ladies’ loos. “Everyone’s a bit dressed up and talking about the production in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a gut place, but from a head place.”
Theatre has the power to transcend all that, she says. As part of an audience, you forget your differences. “Theatre is diverse in a truly human way”, but all the exclusionary stuff that surrounds it aggravates her. “It’s bollocks.”
“Theatre should make you feel stuff viscerally,” she says. “It should be like blokes at a football match or the feeling some people get in church, where you forget yourself for a moment.”
She used to consider the RSC a bit out of touch too, but believes Whyman has made it more accessible to everyone in a way that’s of vital importance given the cuts to the teaching of arts subjects in schools and the “fucking Tories”.
Why would you want to be Nancy? One good song and she gets killed. It’s much more fun being the Artful Dodger
Josephine wanted to act from a young age but there didn’t seem to be a place for her. Most of the roles she was interested in were for boys. She didn’t want to play victims. She wanted to be an Artful Dodger, not a Nancy. “Why would you want to be Nancy? One good song and she gets killed. It’s much more fun being him.”
She ended up doing the contemporary theatre course at East 15, which taught her to be proactive, to “be a theatre-maker rather than actor”. It is in this spirit she started to write. If the roles she wanted to play weren’t there, she would have to write them.
Josephine formed Snuff Box Theatre with, among others, Bryony Shanahan, incoming associate artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and wrote her first play, Perfection, which the company took to Edinburgh in 2011.
She wrote Bitch Boxer to create the kind of role she wanted to play. She took the show to Edinburgh in 2012 under the Old Vic New Voices banner. It then transferred to Soho Theatre before going on to tour in the UK and internationally.
The success of Bitch Boxer got Josephine an agent. Soon afterwards she was cast in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. “I learned a lot from the actors: Jenny Jules, who’s brilliant, said: ‘Don’t spoil your blessings, enjoy the process, don’t worry about the end product.’ ”
She was also chosen to be part of Sean Holmes’ Secret Theatre project for the Lyric Hammersmith. She loved the idea of what Holmes set out to achieve and the experience of being part of an ensemble, the way they became braver with one another over time. “British theatre could do with being a bit braver,” she adds.
Josephine continued to combine acting with writing and took her play Blush to Edinburgh in 2016. Starring in it again, alongside fellow Snuff Box company member Daniel Foxsmith, she won The Stage Edinburgh award for her performance.
Blush is a play about revenge pornography but at its heart, she says, it is about shame. She wrote it thinking about the shame she felt “as a woman, which is always about appetite – for food and for sex”, and having talked to men about what makes them feel shame. The Stage’s Stewart Pringle called it “a vital sweat-box of a two-hander”. He described her “raging across the room or crumpling into next to nothing”.
When Josephine writes, she does so from an actor’s perspective and imagines herself performing on stage. “Sometimes this can be a hindrance and sometimes they fuel each other in a way that’s useful.” She concedes that occasionally she can end up in her own head too much. She had to come to rehearsals to “be an actor in my body and not think too much – it’s been hard to just start feeling again”.
After the interview, Josephine is going to see Christopher Eccleston play Macbeth across the road in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Her excitement is palpable and contagious.
It will be the first time she has seen a show in the space where she will be performing in a month’s time. She still finds the idea that she’s going to play one of her favourite roles on that stage “mad”. With a grin, she says: “I still can’t believe it. The fact that I’m going to be doing some Shakespeare at the RSC just makes me laugh.”
CV: Charlotte Josephine
Born: 1989, St Albans
Training: Contemporary theatre course, East 15.
• Bitch Boxer, Snuff Box Theatre (2012)
• Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse (2012)
• Secret Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith (2013)
• Buckets, Orange Tree Theatre (2015)
• Blush, Soho Theatre (2016)
• The Stage Edinburgh award (2016)
Agents: Hatton McEwan Penford (acting); Jonathan Kinnersley at the Agency (writing)
Romeo and Juliet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until September 21