Pathways to Shakespeare

Charlotte Cornwell

August 23, 2013

Charlotte Cornwell in HamletCharlotte plays Gertrude in Hamlet and the Countess of Rossillion in All's Well That Ends Well.

Everyone must find their own pathway to Shakespeare, each person in their own way, Charlotte says, a reflection that comes from someone who is both teacher and actor and aware of her own discoveries in working on the roles of Gertrude and the Countess. Discovery comes in the doing, she insists.

It came only when she was a professional actor. She had encountered Shakespeare as English literature for exam purposes reading Twelfth Night and Macbeth in senior school and, although she had worked her way through Dickens by age 13, she found these plays just too difficult.

A level was even worse. She was studying Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night (again!) but she found the teaching boring.

At Drama school they had to do set pieces of Shakespeare. It was here at Webber Douglas Academy that Shelagh Moriarty aroused her interest by talking about Shakespeare in an interesting way but when they turned to the texts she was still unconvinced,

Her first professional role was at the Bristol Old Vic where she found herself cast as Kate Hotspur in Henry 1V Part 1.

'I was terrified', she admits. She watched fellow actors Timothy West, Prunella Scales and Connie Chapman in rehearsal and marveled at their command of language, the way they would relish the colour and richness of the words. The language seemed their own.

During this period of rep she had an offer from the RSC but turned it down, 'play as cast' was not a named part and the 23-year-old was getting big roles now at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic. She finally came round three years later when directed by Terry Hands in Henry V and Henry VI.

Emrrys James, she says, saw the language as food to him, and his Welshness added to its richness. She was captivated as he drew you in when presenting the Chorus of Henry V. Graham Crowden was another inspiration and she knows that learning from your peers is important. She was around actors to whom Shakespeare was second nature.

She says that acting is 85% courage, 15% technique. What sort of courage, I ask her. She says that you must imagine a world without images, where there are is no film, little visual presentation, where people do not travel beyond their own village or town. Then you can embrace the Shakespearean language, its imagery, its colours and sound, surrender to it and above all trust Shakespeare!

Her own learning experience continued with Trevor Nunn who decided, after a flop of a play in London, to replace it with As You Like It with a three week rehearsal schedule and casting Charlotte as Rosalind.

As a director she found him exciting. He enabled you let you discover the play for yourself and she enjoyed the challenge of this method of working.

But three weeks for a very large role is cutting it fine. She hadn't eaten for two days when at the dress rehearsal she dried and felt so scared that this 28-year-old went to her director in tears and said she couldn't do it.

There was a Nunn ultimatum. 'Charlie, I can order you a taxi now and you can go and you will not return to play the role of Rosalind or I am prepared to give you another run through'. She got there in the end but when he greeted her in the wings with open arms after the first night she pummeled him furiously! 'It's not supposed to be like this', she cried in fury.

She played Beatrice in Howard Davis' Much Ado About Nothing, a dark production she loved and then found herself in Richard III with Ian Mc Kellen. She played Elizabeth and had one of the longest duologues in Shakespeare with him.

She spent eight years, 2004- 2012 in the US, when she decided she wanted to teach as well as act. It was very difficult, she admits. How do you cope with individual needs when you have a whole class? And teaching Shakespeare she found, certainly in America, was challenging because Americans are not strong on irony and find it so difficult to play irony.

Charlotte is anxious that pathways to Shakespeare should be available to all. She helped set up a new acting programme at one of the biggest dramatic academies - South California.

She wanted youngsters from poor backgrounds to be given a chance. It was rewarding to see students take on Shakespeare and enjoy it. She cites the example of an African American, Miriam Glover, who when first faced with Macbeth hated it but she was a talented driven actor and the next year produced an outstanding Puck.

Now Charlotte is back home and hoping to set up Fearless Choices Young Actors' Project, a free 15-month acting project for 18-25 year olds from low income/ no income families. Twelve will be chosen based on talent and potential. She knows that these youngsters could not possibly face the debt incurred by having to pay £9000 fees and living expenses. They would see it as just not for them.

Charlotte is a woman of tremendous theatrical experience, happy to return to the RSC after 32 years.

Rather than a problem play she sees All's Well that Ends Well as an extraordinary play in which women have the strong roles and support each other.

Her Gertrude in Hamlet has developed to focus on a woman who validates herself through power with a man. She has to come to terms with her tragic mistake in marrying Claudius which results in her son's unbridled anger and the disintegration of Ophelia whom she hoped to see as his wife.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet


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Teaching Shakespeare