Charity Wakefield on Making Her West End Debut in Emilia and Realizing She Resembles Shakespeare

Charity Wakefield on Making Her West End Debut in Emilia and Realizing She Resembles Shakespeare
Charity Wakefield in "Emilia"
(Photo: Helen Murray)

Charity Wakefield has made a name for herself both sides of the Atlantic in TV shows like Bounty Hunters and Wolf Hall but is only now making her West End debut in the transfer to the Vaudeville Theatre of Emilia, currently in previews prior to a March 21 opening. Premiered last summer at Shakespeare’s Globe, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play tells the empowering tale of Emilia Bassano, the English poet who may well have been Shakespeare’s lover and muse in an all-female production that casts Wakefield in various roles, chief among them Shakespeare himself. It’s no surprise, then, that the lively and intelligent actress was brimming over with enthusiasm when phoned for a chat.

Did you ever imagine that you would end up making your West End debut playing, of all people, William Shakespeare?
Not at all. God, no. I play about six different characters in this, but Shakespeare is obviously the main one, and you know what is really weird? When I put the wig on and the ‘tache and the beard, I actually do look a little bit like him: my natural face does resemble him.

Is it difficult playing a man, much less this man?
Playing any man has its physical challenges. You can generalize sometimes between how men carry themselves and how women carry themselves and what I have found is that I don’t need to start playing a man; all I need do is take away the trappings of being a woman. It’s not about trying to project being manly.

Does it feel like unfinished business to return to this play after your comparatively brief run outdoors at the Globe last summer?
Yeah, I know. We had, I think, 11 performances at the Globe in total over the course of two and a half weeks, and every night was extraordinary in its own way. The night before the end, I felt as if I was doing the play onstage for the first time. What happened was that loads of people wanted to see it and then realized they couldn’t, so it’s really lovely that we have been given such a long run in the West End. [Emilia is set to run through June 15.]

How are you reshaping a production originally meant for an alfresco audience of 1600 for an indoor audience in a playhouse half the size of the Globe?
That’s our challenge and we’re working to shift it. The show is different now, not least in the writing: Morgan has written a West End version of her play in full awareness of the space we’re going into.

How do you go about recreating the sometimes raucous, even anarchic energy of the Globe?
That’s the thing: we don’t have the set-up of the Globe on the West End. But we nonetheless fully intend to bring the feeling of the performance style of the time into the Vaudeville, and we’ve also got more tools to play with now that we are indoors as regards lighting and music; we can more readily focus the scenes. We’ve also got some neat ideas about when and where to bring in the audience interaction.

Were you amazed by the response last summer, with people reacting the night I attended as if they were at a rally or a rave?
I remember thinking when we did our first preview: “Let’s just get through this and do our best.” And then the audience kind of went mad, which was a shock to us. The reaction was so strong that I burst into tears.

Do you see Emilia as a risky commercial proposition amid a West End dominated by musicals and star vehicles like Gillian Anderson in All About Eve?
The only reason it feels like a risk is because this is not a known play and Emilia Bassano is not a known character, but that’s precisely what we’re saying: the question is put right there in the beginning as to why it is that we don’t know about this woman. There are so many women’s stories that people should know about but [history] tends to focus on the male characters and has done.

What do you make of the suggestion in the play that Shakespeare may have been a plagiarist?
I think that’s one description of what you might come away from this show feeling, and that’s how Emilia sees him—though whether or not that’s an absolute historical fact is up to you to decide.

Do you have an opinion on the matter?
We know that Shakespeare at the time of our play has married and lost a son and come to London and had lots of affairs, so you have to wonder where he got his information from. Like all great masters he’s taking things that other people have said and getting other people to write bits of his work, so it’s not as simple as plagiarizing. What our story does is raise a great question about art and how it’s created. It’s very easy, as the Daily Mail critic has done, to say that our Shakespeare is “a twerp,” but we’re shining a light on a more complex discussion.

Was it useful on this job having played Mary Boleyn in the acclaimed TV miniseries Wolf Hall, adapted from the Hilary Mantel books?
The advantage there was that we had the extraordinary description of Hilary’s books to work from; it was on the page. But you’re right: both cases are about finding the life in the character, no matter how well-known. You can’t play a historical fact: you have to try and find where you yourself meet the character. In Emilia, it’s an assumed fact that Shakespeare is who he is, and you then just play the reality of the scene. My character is as Emilia Bassano experiences Shakespeare, so you start from that.

What can you tell us about some of your more recent screen work?
I’m going to be playing the lover of Peter the Great in a series for Hulu, The Great, which is about Catherine the Great, with Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. My character is married to Peter’s best friend, who’s played by Gwilym Lee [from Bohemian Rhapsody]: we are a kind of “thrupple” in it [laughs].

Do you ever yearn to play someone from the here and now?
I’ve got a new series of Bounty Hunters for Sky coming out with Jack Whitehall and Rosie Perez, whom I know is loved in America and I love her, too! I play Jack’s kind of rebellious and funny sister who is a really good example of a female character that doesn’t need to be defined by a boyfriend. I get to wear ripped jeans and it’s very much of the here and now!

Finally, how does it feel with Emilia to be just minutes away from two musical theater studies in comparable female empowerment: 9 to 5 and Waitress?
I expect we’ll have a few good hoedowns after the show. That reminds me: I must get down to the Adelphi [where Waitress is playing] for some pie!