Lucy Phelps and Sophie Khan Levy talk about female friendships both in Shakespeare and in their own lives.

Man making a joke for two ladies as they smile.
Sandy Grierson as Touchstone, Sophie Khan Levy as Celia and Lucy Phelps as Rosalind in As You Like It.
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

The RSC Key had the pleasure of chatting to Lucy Phelps and Sophie Khan Levy, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, about inspirational women on and off stage. 

What are you enjoying most about the current Royal Shakespeare Theatre Season?

Lucy: Well, obviously, we love being on stage with each other. We also really like being off stage with each other! Because we’re on stage most of the time, we have a 20-minute gap where we just get to sit nice and quietly in the dressing room, chat and have a cup of tea.

And to think about our lives and think about the play, obviously.

Sophie: We’ve now setup a routine where we just do exactly the same thing. You know, fill up our water bottles…

L: Sometimes fill up each other’s water bottles. And then, at the end of the show we do a little naked dance.

S: Together.

 

How integral do you think Rosalind and Celia’s friendship is to the play?

L: Massively integral. I think it is one of the most important relationships in the play.

S: The thing is, without that friendship the play wouldn’t go on. Celia says, “let’s go to the forest” and so the journey begins. It’s because those two are so close that when something happens to Rosalind, the friend chooses to escape and they go together. It would look very different if they weren’t friends, or if they weren’t as close – they’d go their two separate ways.

L: They are the greatest loves of each other’s lives, and seemingly hugely satisfied by this emotional relationship to the point where it’s going to take something quite big, not to divide it, but to push it in a different direction. I think that they find utter intellectual and emotional fulfilment, affection and love with each other.

 

What is your favourite female friendship/relationship in a Shakespeare play?

S: This one. I mean, to be honest, this is also why we were interested in talking about it because it’s seemingly one of the few female friendships portrayed.

L: And also, although Rosalind is no longer the princess, in terms of status they’re on a sort of similar level. Often the other representations are of a servant or a waiting lady and a woman of status, whereas these women are able to talk to each other as equals. So, yeah, these girls – Rose and Cece.

Two young women sit on the grass, teasing each other and smiling.
Sophie Khan Levy as Celia and Lucy Phelps as Rosalind and in As You Like It
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Why do you think it’s so important to reflect strong female relationships in theatre?

L: Because it doesn’t always happen. We don’t see it enough, but women have really strong amazing friendships and we need to see that! Women are often presented in competition or at logger-heads for some sort of reason, or critical of each other. I mean, women are critical of each other, but then we also deeply care, love and hugely respect each other. There’s a wave at the moment of women loving and respecting women and wanting to celebrate other women.

S: I completely agree - it’s important to show all types of relationships. It just so happens that women or female friendship is underrepresented. We want to see all types of relationships, not just accurate male and female ones. We want to see all different kinds and I think that female friendship is a start, because they can be so weird and whacky, and I don’t think we show it enough.

L: It’s not all just nice, nice – it can be brutal. And those friends that you have that you can just go there and still come back from the brink and still with each other, I think that’s an amazing friendship to explore.

 

What are the three main changes to the portrayal of female friendship that you’ve noticed over the years?

L: I think that since Bridesmaids and things like that there’s been a new wave of a celebration of funny women, and women who don’t have to be prim and look a certain way. Women who can get into hilarious scrapes in the same way as men.

S: Women talking to other women about stuff other than men – that’s different. Or at least the way it’s portrayed. Because, you know, in things like Sex and the City they only really talk about men, and occasionally work, but only as a by-product. Whereas now you have things like Girls, where it involves men, but there’s also a lot of other stuff as well.

L: Also seeing female-led dramas which have women taking other roles other than the wife or the girlfriend. I think that’s what we love in this play because within the first three minutes Rosalind tries to talk about love and Celia says no, let’s talk about philosophy instead, and we have these two minutes of just sitting-down and discussing philosophy.

There’s Elizabethan feminism inserted into that first section that it doesn’t ring out like in Celia’s line of “let me turn monster”. We discovered that Monster were women who used to dress in male attire. So, these sort of debates that were being had the time about feminism are sort of presented even in that first scene, which is amazing.

 

Is there a famous female friendship group you would love to be a part of?

S: I think I’d choose something from a cartoon, like The Powerpuff Girls.

L: That’s such a good one! I’d be the blue one.

S: I think I’d be the pink because that’s also what we wear in the show.

L: If we’re trying to focus on real people though, I’d love to hangout with Michelle Obama for a little bit – I’d love to be her best friend.

S: You know, I quite liked the way the girls from Friends related to each other. I’d like to be their pal.  

A young woman disguised as a man faints, whilst a young man and woman help her.
Lucy Phelps as Rosalind, Leo Wan as Oliver and Sophie Khan Levy as Celia in As You Like It
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Which women have influenced/inspired you?

L: Sophie… and The Powerpuff Girls. Recently I read Sara Pascoe’s Animals so I’m fan-girling over her at the moment. I think she’s amazing.

But also, when you’re growing up it was my mum, my grandma, and my sister. What’s great is that now you have more and more strong female role models that are coming into the limelight and asking questions, posing ideas, and creating work in amazing ways. I am obsessed with Amelia Earhart – I think she’s incredible. So, yes, just women who have pushed boundaries, or who will always try to push the boundaries.

S: When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware that my gender was kind of forcing me into not feeling so aspirational, but it does mean that my role models were my family, and my family is made up of a lot of women - my sister, my mum, my mums’ sisters and their girls. So, because of growing up around women who are also around other women, I’ve always thought of female friendship and female bonds as really important. And Lucy, obviously.

Best advice you’ve ever received from a girl friend?

S: None of them are him.

L: Stop being so hard on yourself.

 

Who do you think are the three most interesting women of Shakespeare?

Both: Beatrice, Rosalind, Celia.

 

If you want to see Rosalind and Celia's friendship for yourself As You Like It is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31 August

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