Playing Desdemona in Othello is a double first for Joanna Vanderham, her first Shakespearean role in her first big theatre although she has had phenomenal film experience. 

Born in Perthshire she joined the local drama club aged nine. She attended school in Dundee where she read six Shakespeare plays.Othello was her favourite and she would always have her hand up to take a part. She did Scottish Highers in: English, Drama and History before being accepted at 17 for The Royal Welsh College in Cardiff.

Joanna Vanderham looking shocked, wearing a luxurious silver gown
Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC Browse and license our images

Starting young 

In her second year she played Cathy in The Runaway, a six part serial for Sky TV. This meant missing two terms when she was filming for three months in South Africa but the college graded her work from her film performances, giving her a first. 

Having graduated she was immediately recruited for the central role of Denise in The Paradise, an eight part series for BBC based loosely on the Emile Zola novel Au Bonheur des Dames. Most recently she has filmed The Go-Between in which she plays the young Marian, with Vanessa Redgrave playing the older version of her character, to be screened in September by the BBC. 

Pathway to Othello

The director of Othello, Iqbal Khan, saw Jo playing some Hitchcock at drama school and taking the role of Mary Stuart. He reckoned that she had the sexuality for his Desdemona and could handle the heightened text.

Unravelling the play

When Jo read Othello she had assumed that Desdemona and Emilia had always been friends but discovered in rehearsals how they had been thrown together. Desdemona has to win Emilia's friendship and loyalty. With Othello, Jo says, she never doubts for a moment that their love will not survive, she believes utterly in the strength of their relationship, although aware of a darker world that could intrude on it. 

She admits that moving from rehearsal room to the thrust stage was nerve-wracking but by the third preview she was feeling better.

Her way of learning lines is the same for both film and stage. “Why? I have to know why I am saying the line.” And she does a warm up lasting an hour and a half, as much mental as physical. 
“I am not a singer,” she says so before rehearsals even started she had taken twice weekly singing lessons and could manage a simple version of The Willow Song.

She appreciates the live audience in theatre and playing with them is wonderfully empowering: 

  • The audience that comes to listen seriously and needs to be encouraged to laugh
  • The audience that comes to be entertained and needs to see the seriousness of the play

You must engage with your audience and challenge them, she feels. 

A reminder for Gregory Doran

Does she have another Shakespearean role she would like to play? Lady Macbeth is her reply. And she has told Greg! She says that he nodded and laughed. “I hope he remembers,” she adds. 

It would seem a natural progression: another intense relationship that disintegrates but instead of to her being the innocent victim she would be the unwitting instigator.

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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