INTERVIEW: Kara Tointon on playing Olivia in Twelfth Night

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Kara Tointon in Twelfth Night at the RSC

KARA Tointon stars as an elegant Olivia in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s festively Victorian Twelfth Night, which runs until 24th February. Here she tells Gill Sutherland about acting in Shakespeare for the first time…

I AM a Shakespeare novice. I have never performed one of his plays professionally, but I like a new challenge and it’s certainly been that!

My experience with Shakespeare was school and doing LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] exams. I had the most fantastic English and drama teacher, we remain friends to this day. She’s coming to see me in this and is incredibly excited.

I indulgently dreamed of doing Shakespeare. I loved it at school; I went to St Hilda’s in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex. We had a Shakespeare cup at school, which was competitive. I always wanted to play the male parts, and loved playing Puck. I also loved the role of Viola in Twelfth Night!

Director Chris Luscombe asked me to audition for Olivia after seeing me in Gaslight [the psychological thriller stage play which toured last year]. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, then I quickly turned around and thought, actually this would be the perfect thing for me right now, and I’m so pleased I did.

The RSC is the Rolls-Royce of theatre companies. When you join the RSC it’s like entering a completely different world. It isn’t just about actors coming and having an incredible experience, and the people coming to watch the plays, it’s a machine! Everything is in-house, so all around Stratford there are factory-like departments making the sets, wigs and wardrobe… it is so exciting for everyone involved. I’ve been swept up in the brilliance of it.

For any actor it’s daunting coming to the RSC, it’s such a new challenge, but I’m enjoying it so much I don’t know if I ever want to leave Stratford now. It has been lovely to get out of north London and relax here in wonderful Stratford. Everyone has been warm and welcoming, and the cast are so supportive of each other, it’s such a lovely long rehearsal period that by the time you get here from London you are ready for it.

Doing theatre has been a revelation. I have done a lot of TV [EastEnders, and she was the winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2010] but actually the last six years it has mainly been theatre. I feel more comfortable in theatre than ever, and I think voice and strength wise it has taught me so much; and then when I’ve gone back to filming that’s been easier because of the stage work in a way that I wasn’t expecting. If you always remember your theatre basics it will always hold you in good stead in every aspect of the industry.

Olivia has been a fantastic part to delve into, she’s got a lot of depths and craziness going on, so it’s quite exciting. She goes through every single emotion possible, she’s very up and down. We don’t have much in common: I’m quite an open book whereas she puts up a façade, quite closed. At the beginning we meet her and she’s absolutely fantastic at being the leading lady of her household; she’s the boss for sure. But she uses being in mourning [for her brother] as a bubble. Then out of the blue she meets someone who breathes oxygen into her lungs again. She can’t really believe it and doesn’t know what to do with it. Cesario does not feel the same so she’s trapped once more in unrequited love — which is sad! She has all this passion but she never quite gets to use it; even at the end does she get what she wants?

The play is called Twelfth Night or What You Will and through discussion in rehearsals we thought that was significant. I think Shakespeare was trying to tell us that we fall in love with the person, it’s not about their gender. We fall in love with a soul, so it does get us asking questions at the end because Olivia gets a twin of the person she fell for. Is that the person she fell in love with though? There’s a lot of questions left up in the air at the end of the play.

The audience will love the music. It is beautifully written and toe-tapping. Because we set it in Victorian Britain it kind of lends itself to that Gilbert and Sullivan show tune style, and the variety of music is wonderful.

I first went very posh with the voice for Olivia, but then toned it down. I guess I am channeling Queen Victoria at the start. She lives in the countryside, where she’s queen of the household and Orsino is a flamboyant artist living in the city. Weirdly, Chris had decided to give the play a Victorian setting with the Indian influences way before Victoria & Abdul came out [the recent Judi Dench film that saw her playing the monarch who befriends a young Indian clerk]. We did a cast group trip to see it, and Chris kept saying ‘I came up with the idea first!’

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies and so clever, I’ve worked hard to understand everything, and my aim is that my family will understand 80 per cent of what is going on! I’ve seen so many productions of Shakespeare where I wanted to chop my arm off. I think he is the ultimate genius, but he would surely be turning in his grave if he knew people were watching his plays and not understanding it. Weirdly as an actor doing it, once you get to grips with the language it is just incredible, you really don’t have to do anything, it’s just all in there. I’ve been looking on YouTube at great actors, such as Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and when it is done well you absolutely understand it, and that’s the point and it’s how you give it to the audience.

I’m talking nonsense! I haven’t been interviewed for so long I forgotten what to say… I’m waffling!

I am not a party person, I’m really boring so won’t be partying on Twelfth Night itself, no. My drink of choice at the moment is a Bloody Mary, I’m obsessed and I’ve been trying to track down the best version in London. As you would expect they do a good one at the Savoy, and also at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill.