“The Shakespearean language, I just find it so much easier to get to a real emotional state as it is just there for you.” I spoke to Natalie Simpson, a LAMDA graduate who is making her RSC debut this season as Ophelia in Hamlet and Guiderius in Cymbeline.
Natalie was born in Nigeria and grew up there until she moved to Buckinghamshire when she turned eleven. Her love for theatre evolved from a very young age, she told me about how her love for theatre and acting began back in Nigeria: “There would be times when the electricity would cut out, and so after school the electricity would be gone and you’d be sat without TV or electrical games for a couple of hours, nothing extreme. Me and my siblings, especially me and my little sister would come up with games and plays and spend hours recreating things we’d seen in films and making up different lines, or we’d read books and I’d read to her in funny voices and act things out.”
She always knew she wanted to be an actor but didn’t think she’d actually be able to do it as a job, when she went to boarding school in England she did her LAMDA speech and drama exams: “It was actually in my last LAMDA exam, the examiner said to me ‘I really hope you go and continue to train, it is definitely something you should carry on doing.’ So it was then that I actually thought, okay so maybe I should go to drama school.” After going to university to study languages she auditioned for LAMDA and received a place.
She excelled at drama school and whilst it was intense and she told me: “If you can survive that you can survive anything in the industry” but she loved every second of it. “I didn’t realise how much I needed it until I was there, most importantly for me it was voice and movement, I didn’t realise I was moving around so stiff and quiet.”
Natalie describes working at the RSC as “like a dream,” she said: “We have a really good team, everyone gets on, we have fun offstage and then when we are working we really work.” As well as having a great time she feels she has really grown as an actress: “I feel really safe to be brave which is really important and Simon (Godwin) the director for Hamlet is amazing, he makes me feel safe and that I can go all out there, especially with Ophelia I mean you can’t really be shy about it. You have to go all out.”
In terms of Hamlet, Simon Godwin’s production of Hamlet is set in a contemporary West Africa interjected with tradition. “The set and the music is amazing, it is all so bright and colourful, it is one of those productions that you are just excited to be in.”
Natalie is playing the iconic role of Ophelia and a female version of Guiderius, renamed Guideria, in Cymbeline. I asked her how the roles compared: “They’re polar opposites,” she told me. “Guideria is out in the wilderness, hunting for her own food, killing huge men and cutting off their heads. Whereas Ophelia is not allowed to go out and do what she wants, they’re completely different women.” She then explained that whilst rehearsing for both plays, the characters actually inform each other. “What I’m doing is really informing what I do in Hamlet in terms of giving Ophelia strength, giving her confidence and giving her a backbone which is so important for her.”
She then talked about her interpretation of each role: “With Ophelia, because it has been done so many times, I tried not to have an idea of what I was going to do, I try to do that with every part.” She didn’t want to read or research too much into the role, in terms of working as a strong cast she said: “I think it is easier to try and fit into the narrative of the play instead of coming in with a strong idea.”
A few weeks into rehearsals she began to research into the role: “I had a talk with the women from the charity MIND and they talked to me about bipolar and manic depression, we talked about Ophelia and what her symptoms might look like depending on what she has, it makes it so much easier to understand. It isn’t random, it is logical in her brain what is going on.” Her approach was similar with Guideria: “I’ve done the same thing and gone in with no initial ideas, I mean with Cymbeline it isn’t well known at all so it was easier to have a blank canvas when I walked in.”
In regards to rehearsals, the two directors tackle the rehearsal process very differently. Simon Godwin started the Hamlet rehearsals with a lot of script work: “We did a lot of paraphrasing so we knew exactly what everyone is doing which is so important and you get the understanding of how you are in the play and how you fit into the narrative and how you feel about everyone.” Natalie explained the importance of characterisation: “Even someone you just cross once with on stage, you have to have a full backstory.”
With the director of Cymbeline, Melly Still takes a different approach: “On the first day we had a script but we got up and basically read the play going round in a circle, we sat in a circle and people got up and read a scene, not necessarily their part. It was kind of jumping into the deep end but it was so rewarding and what is really good is when you’re not reading your own part you really listen and understand.”
Natalie is playing such strong and diverse roles, I asked her about her favourite elements of both Ophelia and Guideria. “I like the fact that Guideria speaks before she has even finished thinking about what she is going to say, she doesn’t care if people like it or don’t, agree or disagree, she is just very outspoken.” Whereas with Ophelia, “I like how she gives people the benefit of the doubt, she lets things roll off her up to a certain point, people can be coming at her and she maintains a sense of humor up until a certain point.”
Natalie is ecstatic to be working at the RSC, particularly during such an exciting season as it is the 400th anniversary since William Shakespeare’s death. I asked Natalie what roles she is desperate to play in the future, “that’s so hard,” she told me. “When I first started I imagined myself doing so much contemporary stuff, my dream was to do stuff at the Royal Court, but the Shakespearean language, I just find it so much easier to get to a real emotional state, as it is just there for you.”
After playing Cleopatra at drama school she said that she would love to play her again when she is a bit older. “It was probably one of the most important roles because it pulled me out of my shell, as an actor I didn’t want to appear really huge, obnoxious and self indulgent.” Her director at drama school told her she was being too small, “I had people telling me to just go for it, you have nothing to be scared of. So I did, I went for it, and after I did that it was so liberating and I found my voice and my confidence and I haven’t really looked back since then.”