Never in her wildest dreams could Natalie have imagined this year at the RSC. She thought her training might lead to film or TV work but hardly to taking on three important roles in classical theatre: Ophelia, Guideria and Cordelia in one season.

While training at LAMDA she was cast as Cleopatra by her tutor Rodney Cottier because, as she puts it, “I was the least Cleopatra-like actor.” Too small in herself, it was in Shakespeare that she found her voice and her confidence. In fact she finds his language actually makes it easier to reach the emotional state of the character.

Three roles to juggle

So how has she approached her three roles here at the RSC? And how does she learn to move from one role to another, especially three in the same day? Nat says that for her it is the costume and sound which allow her to step into each world. As she is tightly-laced into a corset preparing for Cordelia she feels the suppression come upon her. Both Ophelia and Cordelia are emotionally suppressed but because of the regendering in Cymbeline her role as Guideria is freer, more able to speak her mind.

One role informs another

Hamlet and Cymbeline were rehearsed back-to-back and she found playing Guideria made her change her approach to Ophelia. It’s often a question of status that defines your playing style. Initially she had found Ophelia quiet by comparison with Polonius and Laertes but then in rehearsal she found she and Laertes were more equal. Shakespeare gives her empowerment in lines that say: don’t preach to me about sexual freedom when you yourself enjoy it. She feels it’s a modern attitude that Shakespeare is embracing. And Ophelia’s madness is liberating. Then she is able to speak her mind. But what causes her to snap? To Nat it is facing the fact that her lover has killed her father and that she has been complicit in it.

Natalie Simpson as Cordelia, wearing a white dress and shackles, with Antony Sher as King lear, wearing a white robe and shackles
Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Antony Sher as King Lear
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Playing Cordelia 

Cordelia is the most difficult of the three roles. But by the time she was rehearsing King Lear she had discovered “huge statements are to be made without any lines.” Studying her face and body language in the first court scene you can sense her discomfort in the charade her father is creating in demanding public effusions of love. She who cannot heave her heart into her mouth is forced nevertheless to speak the truth and, as Nat says, “it is the beginning of the end.” She has no doubts that she has loved her father dearly but he has changed in his old age. He banishes her and in some ways she acknowledges it is a lucky break. Had she stayed maybe she too would have lost patience with him.

Working on these plays at the RSC, she realises that clarity of the text is paramount but you are allowed to make your own decisions about the emotions of your character. The overall vision of the play becomes a work of collaboration, and that feeling of ownership is important to you as an artist.

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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