“What will the future hold when someone who hasn’t been brought up ‘correctly’ takes over?”
This is Part 2 of a two-part interview series with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Part 1 with King Lear‘s Clarence Smith is here.) I spoke to Natalie Simpson, who recently played Ophelia in Hamlet and is currently playing Cordelia in King Lear and Guideria in Cymbeline.
To start off, can you tell us about Cordelia and your approach to playing her, for readers who may not be familiar with King Lear?
She’s outspoken but quite honest, and not willing to play along or flatter anyone to get somewhere. Just staying true to herself. That’s the character as she’s presented in the text, and without wanting to give anything away, everything starts when she stands up to her dad and it kind of snowballs. What happens is he punishes her quite publicly for it, and then it snowballs into this huge division of the kingdom. So she’s quite pivotal. She’s kind of the catalyst for the unfolding of the narrative.
What’s it like to play these roles like Cordelia and Ophelia that are so often construed as paragons of female martyrdom and goodness, and how do you make that more palatable for a contemporary audience? For example, with Cordelia, do you emphasise how she stands up to her father?
Well, the thing is, Shakespeare’s an incredible writer. Any kind of human condition, he’s talked about, he’s touched on, but sometimes when it comes to the younger female roles, they kind of stand as a symbol rather than being more of a 3-D fleshed out character. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have real, relatable thoughts and feelings, but sometimes I feel that you have to fill in the gaps a little bit more if you want to really flesh out your character. And so it’s always hard when you’re given a character and you’re told, “This person’s a really good person. She does these things because she’s just really good.” I don’t think that anyone is black and white; I think everyone’s just a bit gray, and then people make good decisions based on where they are in society, where they are in their lives, how happy they are, and then people make bad decisions.
When I’m tackling Cordelia, I try very hard to keep the integrity of the character but also give her her own ambition, her own drive, and not see her as a goody-two-shoes but as someone who has an objective and her own reasons for why she does things; it’s not just for the sake of being a good person, which, I’m going to be honest, I don’t think ever really drives anyone. That makes me seem so cynical!
It’s probably true, though!
But also as an actor, it’s a lot more interesting to play someone who’s flawed. I think that’s what makes a character relatable. If you’re sitting in the audience and you see someone who’s pious and really great, who’s perfect, you find it hard to believe and it’s also not as interesting; it’s not as satisfying as someone who is a bit more conflicted.
On the flip side from Cordelia, let’s talk about Guideria, who you’re playing in Cymbeline. Since this is one of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays, can you fill us in on who she is and what’s the play about?
I didn’t know it before I went into that room. I had no idea what the play was about before I auditioned for it. I’d heard of it, but I think I confused it with Coriolanus. So basically, Guideria – originally the character was Guiderius, Cymbeline’s long-lost son, but now we’re playing it with Cymbeline and Guideria being women, so she’s Cymbeline’s long-lost daughter. Guideria and her brother Arviragus are kidnapped from Cymbeline when they’re three and two years old, and they’re taken out into the woods and are basically brought up without knowing that they’re royalty. So Guideria is brought up by this guy who she thinks is her dad, but he’s not; he’s someone that used to be in Cymbeline’s army, and he’s kidnapped them for various reasons. Then they come into contact with lots of royalty, lots of people from the kingdom, and they’re so excited by all these people, and they fight them, but the people from the kingdom kind of take Guideria and Arviragus in as theirs. And they meet Innogen, who’s their sister but they don’t know she’s their sister, but they have an affinity with her.
So yeah, it’s a really nice story, but it’s just not well-known. And I think it’s not well-known because there’s this really funky bit in the middle with [the god] Jupiter – it’s like this weird dream sequence – and when you read it, it’s one of those moments where your mind kind of drifts and you go, “I don’t know what’s going on.”
I was told that the reason that’s in there is that court masques were very much in fashion at the time, and Shakespeare thought, “Well, I still gotta get paid,” so he just threw that in.
I think that would make sense. We like to try and find hidden deeper meanings in things when we read Shakespeare, but a lot of the time I think the reasons are really banal – you know, “Might as well put it in.” When you come across it, it’s like, “What the hell do I do with this?” But I really enjoy it; I think it’s a great play.
I’m not that familiar with Cymbeline either, but from what I can tell it sounds like it’s preoccupied with fears about British identity and this sort of fracturing of Britain. Being that this was written for James I/VI, the Scottish king, that was probably on everybody’s mind at the time, but obviously now with Brexit it’s on everybody’s mind again.
It’s kind of freaky how much it resonates right now, because we set it specifically in a kind of future dystopian Britain where Britain has cut itself off from everything and everyone, cut off all trades. And what happens is that Cymbeline is being fed the wrong information by her husband the Duke, who’s also physically poisoning her, so he’s weakening her body and her mind. He’s saying, “We should break from the other powers and become our own kingdom and not try to make peace; there should be war,” and she agrees to that. It’s the idea of going ahead without all the information or being manipulated into something, which is kind of what we’re seeing now – the media manipulation of people not knowing what they really voted for, being pitted against each other for someone’s political and personal agenda. So I think it’ll be interesting for people to come see it.
The gender-swapping in this production is very interesting as well, since it gives us a female warrior in Guideria – kind of like the opposite of Cordelia.
Yeah, Guideria basically has to fend for herself. She hunts for her food, she lives in a cave, she doesn’t have any luxuries; she’s like an animal. But then there’s this whole nature vs. nurture argument, where even though she’s been brought up away from civilization, she still has an innate sense that she is – she doesn’t know she’s royalty, but she has a feeling that this is not where she belongs. She’s the next queen of England, so that’s the undercurrent that’s bubbling up.
The gender-swapping is interesting, having to go from playing two women [Ophelia and Cordelia] to an originally male role. The only difference I’ve noticed is that when it comes to Guideria, she speaks her mind and does not wait to be validated, or does not wait to be agreed with. And people listen to her and will just do what she says. And I think that comes from it being a male role, where the men kind of say what they mean and people listen – people argue, they don’t have to agree, but as a woman there’s a lot of asking questions or turning to someone for advice.
The directness of the character is something that I actually found difficult to swap into. I had to really work on my status, going from Ophelia, because Ophelia lives with her brother and her dad and she’s the bottom of the food chain, but Guideria lives with her brother and her dad and she’s top of the food chain. So I really had to swap my way of being and dealing with other people.
I was talking to Clarence about the experience of, as a black actor, playing a character who takes over from an authority figure played by a white actor.
You mean with Cymbeline being played by Gillian Bevan?
Yeah, the significance of the reins of power being handed over to your character, or to Clarence’s in King Lear.
I see what you’re saying…in this production, I think there was less talk of an issue about race. It was focused more on – the story was the gender swap, if you know what I mean. For Hamlet, there was a lot about colour, and colour was a thing; we were playing our colour, if that makes any sense. But for Cymbeline, we’re kind of all over, like a melting pot. We’ve got someone from Sri Lanka, someone from the Philippines, so I think I felt it less. It wasn’t really a decision that we spoke about, so I never really thought about it in that context.
What kind of kingdom is Guideria taking over in Cymbeline?
What happens is, Cymbeline finds out that me and Arviragus are her children, so we’re reunited and the Duke – the guy who’s been poisoning her – dies, so she’s restored back to her power. By the end, there’s just kind of an image of her and me, and people know that I’m the future of Britain, the future for Britain. She’s still alive at the end, but there’s an idea that I will follow after her. Even though it’s in my blood that I will succeed her, I’ve actually been brought up outside of the influence of royalty and rules; I’m very independent of that. So what will the future hold when someone who hasn’t been brought up “correctly” takes over? I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.
Especially now, with the current government and the one immediately previous.
Yeah, and the idea of not being able to vote in who’s coming up next. What if we found out Prince Charles had a long-lost son who was older than Prince William, and he’d been brought up somewhere in the Australian outback? And then he comes up like, “Hi, guys, I’m taking over!” You’d have no choice in the matter, because it’s in his blood.
That image of one woman handing off the future to another sounds really powerful, because that’s something you never see in non-gender-swapped Shakespeare productions.
No, you really don’t see it. You have to swap genders to get the full benefit of it.
Was this production always conceived of as a gender-swapped play, or did they make the decision after going through the audition processes and seeing all the actors?
I think it was always the idea, but I don’t think they knew who they would gender-swap. I think they knew it would be Cymbeline; I don’t know if they knew they were going to gender-swap my role, because I never auditioned for it. I mainly auditioned for Ophelia and Cordelia, and I was going to be company cast in Cymbeline before I got the part of Guideria.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about your experience more generally and working at the RSC. Am I right in thinking you’re still quite early on in your Shakespeare career?
This is really early on in my career, full stop. I graduated a year ago, so this is pretty new. Personally, for me it feels like the best thing I could have done, because it’s like going into further training. You get to work with a company, just like drama school; you get to really, really work on your craft. You’re always working; you keep yourself practiced. And also it’s the best place to do Shakespeare. It’s the Royal Shakespeare Company!
I never imagined myself doing Shakespeare; I just never dreamed I’d do it, because I grew up in Nigeria until I was 11, so I never really went to the theatre. So even when I was at drama school, I don’t think I ever though it would happen for me. It’s kind of a huge surprise, and an amazing, amazing one.
How did you end up with the RSC?
What happened was, I got myself an amazingly beautiful, lovely woman called Saskia as my agent, and she’s just incredible. She pushes me in the best way to do things out of my comfort zone. I mean, I would never turn down an audition at the RSC; I just never thought they would come to me. I was always more than happy to do it. So she got me into these rooms, and she got me an audition – I think it was mainly for Ophelia, and then the others kind of came with that as well. So I auditioned three times in total for it and then found out that I got the job. I was actually temping in a call centre for chip and pin machines when I got the call from her. I think it was the best thing I could have done.
That’s amazing! One more thing before I have to let you go. When I talked to Clarence Smith, he said that when he was starting out in his first RSC role, in 1991, he played the King of France and there was a woman from France in the audience who freaked out. She couldn’t process the King of France being black, even on stage.
I can’t believe that happened to Clarence! To be honest, though, I haven’t felt anything like that from audiences while I’ve been here. I’ve felt really, really welcomed, and as a company we’ve felt very comfortable. Especially with Hamlet. It’s been a really successful show, and I think there’s been a lot of excitement about it.
We as a company, we all feel this is really important, like this is a gift. We have to make the most of it. And so every single day and night on that stage, there is not one single person who is holding back or being lazy. The amount of passion – I mean, I’m still new to this, but I’ve never been in a company that’s been so passionate about what they’re doing every single day. It’s addictive.
From what happened to Clarence in 1991, things have moved on now to where you’re getting approached to play Ophelia and Cordelia and Guideria…
How things have changed, or how things are changing. I was seen for Ophelia first when they were thinking about an all-black Hamlet. But with Cordelia, the girls playing my two sisters are Caucasian, and in Cymbeline, the rest of my family is also Caucasian. So I think it would be a lie if I said I didn’t feel that. Not from the rest of the cast, but I think I personally worry about – especially being somewhere like the RSC, which is not a negative thing about them; it’s actually kind of my preconception of what I think people want to see – I worry that I have to work very hard to prove myself.
Because of people’s preconceptions of what they think Shakespeare “should” look like.
And buying into the multicultural family; I’m in families where everyone else is white, and it’s not explained why I’m not. So I hope audiences can be on board with that, because that kind of stuff means nothing. It means absolutely nothing. Some people might need just a few seconds to say, “Oh, she’s a different colour. That’s cool,” but I hope after that it doesn’t become an issue. I really hope that no one sits in the audience and says, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” Because man, woman, black, white, anything, when you read the text, it’s got nothing to do with what gender you are or anything else. It’s human language. It’s human emotions.
King Lear plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 15 October, at the Barbican from 10 November – 23 December, and will be broadcast to select cinemas from 12 October. For more information, go here.
Cymbeline plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 15 October, at the Barbican from 31 October – 17 December, and will be broadcast to select cinemas from 28 September. For more information, go here.
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Kelly Kanayama is the Administrative Manager/Editorial Assistant at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and xoJane. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.