INTERVIEW: RSC actor Lucy Phelps

Lucy Phelps outside the Swan Theatre. Photo: Mark Williamson

Actress Lucy Phelps takes on an incredible double act in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current season: playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Isabella in Measure For Measure. Here she tells Gill Sutherland about the particular demands of the latter role.

If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Phelps’ exuberant and charismatic Rosalind at the RSC this season, you perhaps won’t be surprised to hear that the charm, energy and humour she exudes on stage is also palpable when you meet her in the flesh. She’s immediately likeable – open, a good listener, modest, fresh and honest. We meet at the RSC offices on a cheerfully bright morning and have a right good chat.

Transforming from Rosalind to Isabella is a big ask – how’s it going?

Lucy Phelps as Isabella and Sandy Grierson as Angelso

I think it’s quite nice because the two worlds are so different – you get to flex your muscles in both. Although after spending a day in Isabella’s world I’m desperate to crawl back to the Forest of Arden and have a lovely time!
If the roles were too similar they might blend into one too much. The worlds of the play as we are setting them are so different. Even the language feels different. Isabella’s is passionate but more restrained it’s more intellectual and guarded than Rosalind’s – you feel a distance; whereas Rosalind is like ‘Hey look at me! How do I feel? Let’s talk about it!’ Isabella only has one short soliloquy with the audience, so there’s not much insight to how she feels, what’s she’s worried about, so it’s a little harder. With Rosalind director Kimberley Sykes wanted the audience to get on board with her from the start so she engages and makes a connection quite early on. Isabella doesn’t have those opportunities – you just see this women with very strong beliefs and principles that she is doing her best to hold onto.

Lucy as Rosalind

It is perhaps tricky for a modern audience to sympathise with Isabella. If she sleeps with Angelo she can save her brother’s life.. she should just get on with it surely?!
I don’t agree with that at all! It’s about bodily autonomy. It’s setting a precedent – what are we saying? That it’s OK for women to give up their bodies, for men to take their bodies, to save lives? She’s made a decision about her life: these are my principles… She’s not not torn but she desperately wants bodily autonomy. Let’s not confuse what’s going on: it’s not lovemaking, Angelo wants to rape her. Her brother is saying ‘will you be raped to save my life?’ … And everyone says ‘yes do anything to save his life’. But look at what that means in the wider context, particularly now, with the value of women and the value of their bodies, and the precedent that might set. I get sad that people can’t see it from that perspective.

Er, of course I was just being devil’s advocate!
(We both laugh) Oh totally, I know… I just hope everyone really appreciates what is being asked of her.
I think it’s difficult because she has such a big faith. She’s such a product of the 17th century – a world that prized chastity so highly and truly believed in heaven and hell. And that’s a real difficulty for a secular society to grasp.

A lot of the ethical debates Measure For Measure throws up are so relevant – we are in a secular society and how other’s faiths are tolerated is still so under scrutiny. I’m thinking of Boris Johnson calling women wearing burkas pillar-boxes… How are you bringing current issues in and making it a modern drama?
Director Greg [Doran] likes the plays to speak for themselves and doesn’t see the need to impose too much on it – waving a flag declaring ‘we’re really talking about Trump here’…
We’re setting it in 1913, so the fall of the Habsburg Empire, and pre-Great War and the rise of fascism and nationalism. So in terms of politics I hope that people recognise the context. Greg doesn’t want to force ideas onto the audience, but to respond to the play within their own experience. So some people sympathise with Isabella’s dilemma and other people think she’s silly.
We’ve set it in this Viennese society where there’s a surface facade but underneath there’s what’s been called ‘the birth of the apocalypse’ so it’s within that context I think Greg is hoping the themes will sing out.

How much do you identify with Isabella?
It’s a part I’ve always loved – I wasn’t familiar with Rosalind, and now I think I couldn’t be without her – but Isabella I studied at school in Worcester. I fell in love with her – I went to a convent school and grew up in a Catholic family with an Irish grandmother who would probably have loved me to have been a nun! She’s very excited about coming to see the play, but I did warn her it doesn’t go very well for Isabella after Act I, Scene IV!
It is hard for us to look at her from the 21st century, because she is a product of her time – when everyone believed in family honour and chastity and heaven and hell. But growing up I could identify with Isabella. We had family friends in the clergy and at school I was surrounded by nuns, so I can understand that dedicated commitment to their vows.

Did you speak to any religious friends about the role?
I called a few nuns! People think nuns are something other – but I always find them to be incredibly grounded and worldly, fun and warm. They always seem so calm – I do see the attraction! They look as though they know what’s life is about.
I used to live near Stanbrook Abbey, and after hundreds of years it was moved – it’s now in Yorkshire, the first ‘eco abbey’, it’s like something out of Thunderbirds. Anyway so we had a past connection with one of the nuns, Dame Philippa, and so I called her for a chat. I also watched a documentary called The Convent – about four people who go into Saint Clares (which is where Isabella goes) for a month, and it’s about their experiences. All the nuns there were fantastic.
There’s something very calming about being around people who are deeply spiritual or engaged in philosophical or moral debate.
They know what’s happening in the world, they are not removed from it. The nuns don’t have an easy life, it’s hard – and they all talk about wrestling with sexuality and falling in love… I’ve really enjoyed the contact I’ve had with religious orders.

Do you have faith yourself?
I think it’s hard in the family I’ve grown up in not to. So I think I do, and I wonder if a lot of people at a push or in extremis would say that they did. It’s nice to think there’s something lovely on the other side. Maybe a cocktail and a nice sunbed!

What do you think the audience is going to get from this production of Measure For Measure?
Greg is keen on making the text clear. I’m hoping the narrative will be clear and that the strong themes that are so pertinent right now will sing out. I think it’s important that everyone brings their own life to it and take different things from it. Not everyone will identify with Isabella, but there are some incredibly strong characters in the play – they’re not instantly likable, but you’re asked to view their dilemma and then asked what would you do. They are human people making mistakes.

What was it like to be given both roles, what did you think?
My first was if this goes wrong my career is over! I auditioned from last August, and got the Rosalind role first, I was thrilled. And then I got offered the Isabella role a little later, and I was ecstatic. I thought oh my God, this is going to be such a unique year, how am I ever going to enjoy anything so much again? Rosalind is in my heart and brain, and the same with Isabella – just because of that family connection I have with her… I’m aware this is unique and that it may be all downhill from here!

So what would you like to happen next?
Well, being here is a dream. I still can’t believe I’m here at the same time as Jonathan Slinger – who I came to see here as a young drama student, watching him in Macbeth and The Tempest. He’ so amazing, I go all coy when I speak to him. And I’m also starstruck when I see Caroline Quentin, I’m a big Jonathan Creek fan!
So I don’t know what could be next… perhaps more work in television and in London – where I live with my partner [the actor Jon Tarcy].

Our chat ends and Lucy heads off on for an invigorating bike ride… A woman on a mission. Possibly from God.

Measure For Measure runs at the RSC Stratford until 29th August, and then transfers to London. As You Like It runs in Stratford until 31st August and then tours. For tickets click here