Claire plays four characters in A Christmas Carol, directed by Rachel Kavanagh. She's one of several actors who were new to the show for December 2018.
The show is the same but not the same. The same text, the same director but with different actors relationships between the characters change. So my first question to Claire is how do you approach a role known to your audience and make it your own?
It helps if you have worked with the director before and this is the sixth show Claire has done with Rachel Kavanagh. Their relationship goes back a long way to when Rachel was an assistant director at The RSC and then later she directed Claire in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Claire played Olivia in Twelfth Night and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Claire discovered Shakespeare when studying Hamlet for O Level. She memorised large chunks of text without really trying and that summer she spent a month in Oxford doing a Drama workshop on Twelfth Night, playing Viola. Her love affair with Shakespeare began, and she returned to the role of Olivia 15 years later, directed by Rachel. Later at the RSC Claire was Mistress Ford in Rachel’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor which went on tour with Coriolanus in which she played Valeria.
In A Christmas Carol she is working alongside David Edgar whose play Pentecost she was in at The RSC. So with two 'knowns' in the creative process she felt bold enough to challenge David’s 'a tall, thin elderly woman' text direction. At 5 ft 3 and blonde it is hardly her!
She sees her role as a therapist who gives Scrooge space to work things out for himself. There is no sermonising - a tone of sorrow and regret informs her constant gentle questioning of his reactions until at last she awakes some feeling in him. This role is the most difficult for her in the play because, she says, neutrality doesn't make good drama. Many of the actors are called upon to play multiple roles and to experience both the rags and riches of Victorian life and Claire has ten costume changes. The slick choreography of the show takes hours of rehearsal.
Claire calls the Royal Shakespeare Theatre "a natural homecoming" - similar to the space she learned to love working in Regent’s Park where the audience is wrapped around you on three sides and at different levels so that you have to “think up” to reach the people above you. She trained at LAMDA where she says the emphasis was on training the voice for theatre rather than TV. Now training is more equally balanced young actors have to learn to “act up” on the job.
One of the important things she has learnt as an actor is to approach a role with an open mind: you read the play and obviously form an idea in your head about the character you are going to play. As a member of the audience we may come to a play thinking we know it because we read the text in school where teachers guided our responses or we have seen the play in performance before. But Claire says that you must come to rehearsal with an open mind. This became apparent when she was to play the role of Diana in All’s Well That Ends Well. She saw Diana as a virgin of integrity who exposes Bertram’s perfidy. The scenario was far different from what she had imagined. Set in the era of the Spice Girls she faced the physical challenge of wearing platform trainers and the vocal challenge of an accent.
Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is playing in the Swan Theatre at the moment and its lines at times uncannily echo the themes of A Christmas Carol.
He will not hear till feel (Flavius)
Their blood is caked, 'tis cold, it seldom flows (Timon)
Act 2, Scene 2
One of Claire’s past roles was as Cordelia to Kathryn Hunter’s King Lear in Tokyo. So the ghost of Christmas Past may well meet Timon of Athens as they cross on the stairs of the RSC with a nod of recognition.
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.