The King John actor talks to Viv Graver about on-stage and off-stage motherhood and playing a tough woman.
Sometimes as an actor you have to make difficult choices in relation to your family life. Charlotte in accepting the role of Constance in King John would be working away from home, which meant as a single mum she wouldn’t always be present for her 14-year-old son. But it was a role that attracted her so much and her son encouraged her to go for it.
Seeing the story through the prism of her own personal life and working with three different young actors around her son’s age playing the role of Arthur (her son in the play), she had a lot to bring to the role. She says that it is wonderful to see these boys developing confidence as actors and being bold enough to make their own choices in relation to Shakespeare’s text. She has some lovely touches as a mum in the play, getting her son to man-up or spending time drawing together. This is very much a 21st century choice which the audience can relate to.
Charlotte explains that there are several possibilities in interpreting the mother role Constance plays. The play can be set in quite different periods: historically in the early 13th century, in the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote it, in the 1960s as in this production or in the 21st century of the audience watching it.
Charlotte has a wealth of classical theatre experience having performed Shakespeare at the RSC, the National Theatre, the Young Vic and Liverpool Everyman. Her first encounter with Shakespeare was as she approached exam years when she had a brilliant English teacher, also responsible for drama. She had roles in his Greek production of The House of Atreus from the age of 14 and the experience committed her to an acting career.
As Constance, she brings a Greek sense of tragedy to the role, magnificent as she is in portraying grief. It is an emotion that she has encountered in other productions, notably in Yerma and Medea. She says that some directors have a particular influence on your development and Rupert Gould encouraged her to make bold choices, to take risks when she played Regan in King Lear. She was in Medea he directed as well.
Both of these productions were presented in a modern context. Simon Stone, directing Yerma, also related the Lorca text to contemporary issues and his rehearsal method was revolutionary. Charlotte experienced a completely new approach which enhanced the idea of the actor living completely in the moment. She watched fascinated as Billie Piper, her sister in the play, totally embraced this, producing performances that earned her six Best Actress awards. How had she made it so harrowing, so compelling? It was called ‘The performance of a decade’ as her grief was achingly wrenched from her.
Charlotte thinks that now she has the courage to loosen control. You work hard on Shakespeare’s language, its meaning, its rhetoric, its versification and in doing so you gain control of your character. But there is a further step when you try not to control and then you can be rewarded by surprises and Constance can still surprise her in performance. It is existing in the moment.
Charlotte has found Constance to be a great Shakespearean woman to play. She is, as her name implies, constant, the only character in King John not to flip. And she is tough. The challenge is to reach out to the audience, swimming against the bad press she is given by the other characters on stage, and convince them of the justice of her claims. And, Charlotte adds, Shakespeare’s language is a gift to an actor playing grief - you are empowered by what he gives you.
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.