Passionate, strong and in control of her own destiny might all describe the Cleopatra of the present production. They are the very qualities which Josette needed when she chose to follow her vocation in drama rather than continue with her French, German and English at her grammar school. Both her brothers went to university to study maths and her family and school expected her gift for languages to take her there too. So it took enormous courage at 17 to apply to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Her interest in theatre developed outside school, in the vibrant theatre scene of 1970s Leicester, circled around Michael Bogdanov's work at The Haymarket and The Phoenix. Josette's talent had been noted and encouraged by Alan Rickman whom she had first encountered in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and by Bogdanov who cast her in The Miracle Worker in 1976.

Josette fell in love with classical theatre at Central. Her first RSC role was in Macbeth as one of the Witches, then Antony and Cleopatra in which she played Iras with Helen Mirren as Cleopatra and Michael Gambon as Antony. She was Margaret in Much Ado About Nothing with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack and went on to roles in The Tempest and Peer Gynt. By 1985 she was in leading roles at The RSC, playing Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost followed by Isabella in Measure for Measure. Later she played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queen Elizabeth in Schiller’s Don Carlos, taking both shows to New York.

Cleopatra holding a letter up high
Josette Simon as Cleopatra
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

Shakespeare's women

So how does Shakespeare present women in a male-dominated society? Josette believes that he understands the female psyche and is well aware of their political acumen. Elizabeth I was on the throne which may have contributed to his view of women in strong, equal positions politically and otherwise. They have strength and are given parity with men, she says.

There are many forms of exploration for the actor but an important one is to constantly question the text: why? why? When there was no reply from Isabella to the Duke’s marriage proposal in Measure for Measure, Josette reasoned that there was not necessarily a happy-ever-after ending and her character, without saying anything, could choose to take the time to answer and walk away. Character creation is individual to each actor and results in quite different performances of the same play.

Approaching Cleopatra

Josette is happy to share some of her approach to the role of Cleopatra. Having accepted the part in June last year she started detailed research on Cleopatra by September. She found many received reports and ideas about her but little contemporary writing. The most extensive was from Octavius Caesar who obviously found her strong, threatening and indefinite and since he couldn’t control her, tried to reduce her. Josette found a highly-intelligent woman who spoke seven languages and was the only member of her family to speak Egyptian.

She started rehearsal in December bringing with her many ideas. Josette's Cleopatra was a fast thinker with a mercurial mind. She was a superb politician willing to consider negotiation but never defeated, never cracking.

Cleopatra is stronger than Antony and, Josette says, although she facilitates the drinking sessions and joins in she's not the one who constantly calls for them. She needs to remain in control. Her passion, courage and energy never flag and though she would prefer to die with him she is left alone to climb the Everest of Act V.

Josette's job is to give a clear, detailed, fully- informed delivery of the text to bring Cleopatra and the story truthfully to life. She has been delighted to meet young people studying the text who are enthusiastic about the play in performance, who tell her that it is so much better than reading and writing essays about it.

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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