Pathways to Shakespeare

Katy Stephens

July 2, 2013

Katy Stephens as Tamora in Titus AndronicusKaty Stephens plays Tamora in Titus Andronicus

Katy's first encounter with Shakespeare, As You Like It for GCSE 'didn't mean anything' to her, although she would later play Rosalind in Michael Boyd's 2009 production.

The role of Rosalind was read by the head girl who was beautiful, clever and super-talented while Katy was given Audrey! Anyway sitting at your desk reading Shakespeare is not the way to do it, Katy insists. It's a play and you should be up on your feet!

However from the age of 14 her dramatic talent was being fostered by regular attendance at the National Youth Theatre in London and after a foundation course in Basingstoke she went on to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

After graduation she worked in television. It was here, after two years in London's Burning, that she knew that she wanted to be a classical actress.

At Colchester's Mercury Theatre she was able to explore classical roles, playing the Greek Classics, Webster, Chekhov, Brecht, Lorca and Howard Barker. It was here in 2004 that she played Lady Macbeth, a role she had already met during her degree course and one, she tells me, she would dearly like to return to with more experience of life and of Shakespeare that she now has.

This experience she gained in Michael Boyd's Long Ensemble, a two and a half year contract for his cycle of The Histories in which she played all the major female roles: Joan, Margaret in Henry VI Part 1, Margaret in Part 2 and Part 3 and Richard III, Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II, Lady Northumberland in Henry V during 2006-2008.

A further extended contract, 2009-2010, led to her playing Rosalind in As You Like It, Regan in King Lear and Eros in Antony and Cleopatra. Understudying the role of Cleopatra, she found herself taking on the part when Kathryn Hunter left the company.

She spent five years working with Michael Boyd, having auditioned for The Histories after playing in Tamburlaine directed by David Farr at The Barbican. She likes the way Michael Boyd works organically and democratically as a director. She found her knowledge of Shakespeare expanding as she took on more plays, more characters. There were eight history plays with the ensemble of 44 performing 250 roles.

The history cycle concentrated on the plays of the 1590s whereas King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra were plays written about 1606. As she examined these later plays she found that they had a maturity which brought her closer to the heart of Shakespeare. So when she came to King Lear she found herself making connections between Regan and Margaret of The Histories and now playing Tamora she understands her better through acquaintance with Regan and Margaret.

She recalls the organic work for Antony and Cleopatra: the rehearsal room had an eclectic selection of props and costume and the modern feel of the play evolved through the actors making conscious choices in collaboration with the director. A sense of ownership results from this style of direction, it seems.

It is a feeling that I had when seeing the public understudy run of Titus Andronicus directed by Mel Hillyard. The play moved effortlessly into the hands of an altered cast who knew exactly how each character was to be played. Sometimes it was impossible to know whether the actors had in fact changed roles.

Katy tells me that there was collaboration during the rehearsal period so that she, playing Tamora, worked closely with Badria Timimi, her understudy, as decisions were made. It is obvious that younger actors were learning from those with greater experience while their own ideas were being taken on board- an ideal situation for enlarging your knowledge of Shakespearean acting.

I ask Katy, does she have any actor from whom she has learnt something special? Alison Peebles on tour with Hamlet, she tells me. Here she saw a woman playing a man but the acting was so passionate - she took the role of the Gravedigger- that the fact that she was a woman was of no consequence.

I remember seeing Katy as Eros in Antony and Cleopatra and thinking much the same!

And she is a great admirer of Jonathan Slinger - so raw and elemental she says.

For young people approaching Shakespeare she advises 'swimming through the text' to the heart of what Shakespeare is saying.

She admits to thinking at one time that Shakespeare was for posh people. There can be for her, as for me, an alienating style of delivery. Not everyone would agree, but accent on stage can bring the feeling that Shakespeare is for everyone, clarity and truth that invite us to listen not to 'poetry' but to the heart and soul of a character who uses his own idiom.

Seeing Titus Andronicus, a play written in 1591-92 is a revelation. A stylish, assured production, it invites us to make many connections with Shakespeare's later plays. Here we can sense so many pathways for Shakespeare himself to explore.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare