Amber left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama only two years ago. This is her debut season at the RSC and at the age of 22 she has been given three important understudy roles: Cleopatra, Lavinia and Dido. It is perhaps a bonus of these Roman plays having so few female parts, where each is a striking role that needs an understudy. But that’s not all: altogether she has eight roles, including those she understudies and will be expected to play in a public performance! That’s a lot of trust to place in the talent of this young actor, but proves well deserved when you see her on stage.
Amber describes herself as a lifelong fan of Shakespeare, her enthusiasm fostered by her mum, an avid reader. When she was doing Much Ado About Nothing at school, it was her mum who suggested they look at the play in performance and she was immediately taken by the Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh film. She still rates the “Kill Claudio” scene in the church as the best version she has seen. When she was studying Macbeth, her mum introduced the Roman Polanski film which again stimulated Amber’s thinking about the play.
She says that she owes her education to Shakespeare. At school her academic interests were narrow, not really extending beyond English, languages and music, so she left after her GCSEs to attend theatre school for two years before joining the Guildhall. But wanting to know more about Shakespeare’s world and ideas has led her to explore history, geography, philosophy and politics.
Finding Her Voice
The teaching of voice coach Patsy Rodenburg was a turning point in Amber’s life and “one of the reasons I am here.” Rodenburg enabled her to develop a women’s voice rather than a girl’s, teaching her the technique of finding her lower breath. She also directed Amber in Medea which called for this vocal maturity.
While at drama college she was Celia in As You Like It, a role perhaps not unlike that of Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra (above). Celia teases Rosalind just as Charmian will Cleopatra, but Amber believes Charmian is bolder.
However, it was Much Ado About Nothing that offered Amber her first professional Shakespearean role. One critic wrote of her performance as Hero being “so polished it belies her relative professional inexperience” and it was noted that she was innocent but “resolute”.
2016 saw her acting in many different theatres. She was in The Globe and Liverpool Everyman production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. This not only played in the intimate space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse but also toured the country and abroad, including in Norway, Sweden and Hungary. In Budapest they played to an audience of 3,000. She had much fun with this play in the roles of Lucetta and Panthino, and fell in love with Shakespeare even more.
We talk of her understudy performance as Cleopatra, and the challenge of taking on the role of someone like Josette Simon who is at the top of their game. Surprisingly she found this easier than performing as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus: “Cleopatra was such a big leap, I just went for it.” Her performance appeared flawless, measured, confident; really remarkable. Lavinia, she says, was harder because she is closer to herself in age. Subtle adjustments had to be made to get into her character. I loved the way she put her own stamp on the role, showing us the anger and frustration as well as the resolute way she approached her role in the family revenge. This may be her debut season but Amber is already showing a real understanding of these plays and the characters; as she says about Shakespeare's women, “They know who they are.”
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.