I caught up with Chu before the company left Stratford for the national tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his performance I had found an Oberon I had not seen before. His sensitivity to the natural world around him gives rise to his own particular language and Chu communicates that relish in his delivery.

I started by saying how the child fairies I have been working with see him. They love his physicality, his voice and focus on the moment. And now he is able to take that nationally. But for him in school Shakespeare wasn’t exactly a delight? No, he says, it was read around the class, each pupil taking a line. His growing interest in character arose from watching TV and film, not from reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth at school.

Chu Ombalala as Oberon in a white suit standing over Titania (Ayesha Dharker)
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Chu read Economics and Politics at the University of London. He was never interested in theatre but came to it through cinema. He realised that the actors he most admired in film had been classically trained and this led him to apply to the Central School of Speech and Drama. For his audition he chose a speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream . He says that he sort of sang it. “I didn’t know what I was saying,” he admits. However “appalling” he says he was, they must have seen his potential and while there he was told that he would be cast as a classical actor.

Playing Shakespeare

His first job was playing Lennox in Macbeth at Bristol Old Vic and on tour. He found himself in several successful Shakespearean productions at The National: In 1999 he was directed by Trevor Nunn inTroilus and Cressida playing Paris and in The Merchant of Venice  where he was Morocco. In the company he was able to work with experienced Shakespearean actors like Roger Allam, Jasper Britton and Henry Goodman.

It was at The Globe and under Tim Carroll’s influence that he began to appreciate that “text is everything” with Shakespeare. If you know the how and why of Shakespeare’s language, how the verse works, and yes, its technicalities, then this knowledge is empowering, Chu says. And you can use it in performance. Here he played Malcolm in Macbeth in 2001 and Aumerle in Richard 11 in 2003.

Playing Oberon

Shakespeare is very good in telling us about the human condition, he says, and his first approach to his present role of Oberon was to see him as a middle-aged man who in some ways is still a child. He has power and desire but his objective is to get back to where he stood with Titania. He has assumed that she was his by right and it’s gone wrong! Puck is an emotional crutch, a tool for achieving his objective and he admits that he can be unfair to Puck at times, a relationship that is not far from the Prospero/ Ariel of The Tempest.

When he took the role he didn’t know that Lucy Ellinson would be Puck and he adjusted to that in his perception of Oberon, in fact Puck being played by a woman  frees him physically, he says. The whole physical side of the role came relatively late, after the humanity of the character had been established.

Working with Erica Whyman has been a delight and he is still learning. She is empowering as a director, she considers what you offer and you feel involved in the creative process, he says.

Viv Graver

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.

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