Pathways to Shakespeare

Jodie McNee

March 20, 2013

Jodie McNeeJodie McNee plays Virginia, Galileo's daughter, in the Swan Theatre.

From the time she was eight until she was 16 Jodie was doing the pubs and clubs of Merseyside as part of a weekend roadshow. She enjoyed doing impressions and had her own repertoire of soap characters which she costumed from a suitcase she brought on stage with her.

There had always been plenty of panto-visiting as her family liked to follow her uncle, Les Dennis, in his various venues. It was her uncle who taught her the importance of the audience, how they feed the play as much as you feed them.

She went to Broughton Hall Girls' School in Liverpool where she says she had a brilliant English teacher. She gave her confidence in studying Shakespeare so that she never felt stupid and although they read the plays as literature, they did take on the roles and in an all girls school that meant all the male characters as well.

She remembers being fascinated by Othello, the fragility of his mind. The school encouraged drama by staging regular shows so she was Fagin in Oliver and had roles in Arabian Nights and Top Girls.

She took Theatre Studies, Art and English Literature at A Level and remembers doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her English teacher recommended The Comedy of Errors to her for her audition for the Drama Centre, London. She played Adriana and was accepted.

Central was very much a Method school, she tells me. She met Stanislavski when doing theatre studies and she found herself doing a lot of Chekhov in the first year and in the second speeches from Shakespeare included work on Cleopatra, Lady Percy and Juliet.

In her final year she acquired her agent who saw her as a classical actor and steered her towards Declan Donnellan at Cheek by Jowl.

Declan, she says, sees himself as a coach rather than a director - a coach for young actors. He is inventive and gives them freedom to experiment with Shakespeare. He is inspirational, encouraging your contribution to his vision of the play. She played Imogen in his Cymbeline in 2007.

A different kind of experience came from her playing Cordelia at The Globe. David Calder played Lear and she explored the father/daughter relationship here as she has once again in playing Virginia in A Life of Galileo. Lear is a play she loves: Shakespeare looking at the ways things go wrong in a family and offering the hope of redemption, albeit through suffering.

And then from the Open Air Theatre with its audience of 2000 to the Swan Theatre, a cosy intimate space. Her first play here was Written on the Heart directed by Gregory Doran. She says that after the security of the rehearsal room its newness was daunting.

So was she frightened when asked to take on the role of Isabella in Measure for Measure directed by Roxana Silbert? No, she loved the character, particularly when she makes an impassioned plea for justice. She saw Isabella as a challenge and working in that Shakespearean space of the Swan she could share her dilemma with the audience. It is very much a shared experience when you play in the Swan, she says.

At 28 she has already covered a lot of ground. If she were asked to play another Shakespearean role what would she choose? Without hesitation she says Lady Macbeth. Then Rosalind - intelligent, witty, exuberant - that would be my first choice for her.

How about Juliet, I ask? She had seen a Berlin Ensemble Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet was surprisingly strong. Even bossy. It had set her thinking: she sees more than Romeo, is more mature, on the cusp of being a woman whereas Romeo is still a boy, she muses. 'Yes, I think I would like to play a strong Juliet.'

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare