When Karen was told that she had been cast as Juliet at the RSC, her first reaction was, “Wonderful, I know her!” followed quickly by, “No, I don’t.” Her initial confidence came from having studied Shakespeare in school – Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors – although these were read rather than acted. She remembers enthusiastically shaking her hand in the air, eager to grab a role A Midsummer Night's Dream, and was indeed chosen first – but as Hippolyta, a part that disappeared after the first page, much to her disappointment.
It was through school trips to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow that she actually saw productions of Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. For the first time, the text came alive. Her belief in the magic of theatre was also nurtured by an aunt who took her for “a very once-a-year special day” to see the Christmas shows in Glasgow. Karen tried to bring that same magic to children when she performed professionally in Christmas shows like Hansel and Gretel.
Karen does not have a traditional drama school background. She did a HND in Musical Theatre at Motherwell College and then an acting course for her BA. After graduating, she worked at Glasgow Citizens Theatre and acted in Oscar Wilde and Brecht elsewhere in Scotland. Romeo and Juliet is her first Shakespeare performance, and she was cast after director Erica Whyman saw her in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at the National Theatre. She played Kay, a rebellious teenager trapped in a home and estranged from her professional parents. The potential for Juliet was clear.
So how did Karen approach the role? Although young at 28, she is considerably older than the 13-year-old Juliet. While working in London and staying with extended family, she observed a young cousin growing up who had all of Juliet’s impetuosity and the desire to have what she wanted straight away. Yes, Karen thought, Juliet would be like her. She also researched teenagers in war zones, but it was in rehearsal that she discovered her Juliet through working with her Romeo, the energetic Bally Gill. He’s like a playful puppy, she says.
I mention the humour of the balcony scene. Karen says they never consciously set out to make it funny; rather, Erica encouraged them to experiment in the acting space, sometimes close, sometimes apart. In rehearsal they had scaffolding to represent the second level and could touch and even reach up to kiss, but in technical rehearsal the box was just a bit taller and reaching became more of a challenge. And for those expecting a balcony, Karen points out there is no balcony mentioned in the text!
This is also a performance where actors are encouraged to use their own accents. “I am so proud to be working for a company that affirms Shakespeare isn’t for or made by one kind of accent,” says Karen.
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.