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INTERVIEW: Rosie Sheehy on playing King John at the RSC

Rosie Sheehy in King John. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC
Rosie Sheehy in King John. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC

In real life actor Rosie Sheehy is funny, warm and friendly and a delight to chat to... The polar opposite of King John, who she is playing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production. Since graduating from RADA four years ago she’s been on our TV screens in Call The Midwife, Chernobyl and DCI Banks IV. Recently she’s also received rave reviews for her theatre roles in Anna X and The Whale (“Knockout” and “One of the discoveries of year” reckoned the Guardian and Observer critics). Here she tells Gill Sutherland about her take on the fearsome monarch

How exciting to have you here as King John – how did that come about?I’ve worked with Eleanor Rhode, the director, a few times. She asked me to audition, and we did a brilliant workshop.

Did you know what you were auditioning for? I knew it was for King John, and I met with Elle three or four times. She already had in her mind that it would be a female lead.

This the first time you’ve done something with the RSC… How did that feel to be joining the company? Amazing. Embarrassingly I burst into tears when my agent told me I’d got the part on the phone.

At drama school I watched every RSC production I could on DVD. I particularly loved As You Like It with Katy Stephens as Rosalind and Jonjo O’Neill as Orlando. I fangirled Katy from afar... and have since worked with her.

Tell me about playing King John as a female actor.In a way it’s brilliant because I haven’t felt any pressure to play it as a man but I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m effeminate in it; it’s been freeing. I feel tremendously lucky to be a woman playing this part, but it hasn’t been something that’s been the main focus in terms of making a character.

So it is gender flipped? Are you changing the pronoun?Yeah it is gender flipped but we’re not changing the pronoun, it’s not Queen John. It’s interesting because there’s a murder of a child in the middle of the play, and for me it adds more of a shock factor that’s she’s a woman, especially because it’s his nephew. We are focusing strongly on the family element – this is a domestic matter.

Tell us about the look and feel.It’s got medieval tones to it but it’s set in the 60s/70s so think the Kray twins – a world where violence is a profession and a means of control. The costumes are stunning. I have this brilliant outfit that’s based on Billy Porter’s outfit to the Oscars, which is like a tuxedo top half and then a big kick-out skirt. It feels very androgynous.

All I’ve seen is the food fight on the trailer...Oh my God that’s what we’re blocking this afternoon. It’s just so much food! I think the audience might need some ponchos or something. Don’t wear your best clothes and sit in the front two rows!

Was there a moment when you decided to become an actor?I grew up in Port Talbot where my mum is a school teacher at a rough comprehensive school and my dad is a design engineer in the steel works, so they weren’t really artistically inclined. I use to dance quite a lot when I was a kid so I think there’s always been something there.

When I started college when I was 16 I decided to take drama A-Level kind of as the subject that I could just enjoy. Then I joined the local youth theatre – the West Glamorgan Theatre Company, which Michael Sheen is a patron of. My first play was with them doing Wind in the Willows – I played the Mole. After A-Levels I got a place at Bristol Uni to do dentistry, which my parents were thrilled about, but meantime I was applying for drama school, and got in to RADA. I said ‘look I’ve got to go’ and my parents were over the moon. They are so supportive even though it was a bit of a left turn. My mum was like ‘What is going on Rosie? Who are you? Where are you going?’ But it’s always been there I think.

Who were your influences at RADA? And did you have a career plan?It’s such a full-on training; it was incredible and that third year really puts you through your paces because you perform for the whole year. I had incredible teachers there: Richard Franklin, who’s an incredible actor, was my mentor; Alex Clifton, who now runs Chester’s Storyhouse, was my acting teacher; Annie Tyson and John Beschizza were real heroes of mine.

You have to have a career plan. If I could work in theatre for the rest of my life I’d love to.

How was it walking through the portals of the RSC?It feels like royalty. The last play I did was in The Vaults – under the railway arches in London which is like being in a cave. All of a sudden you’re here, and you do feel so supported and encouraged to be bold. It’s been an incredible experience.

How are you dealing with the extra pressure that playing the title role brings?I feel like I’m doing a really good job of ignoring that side of things and just doing the work, focusing on the role. That’s how I deal with a lot of things – if the work is there then everything else is a by-product. Elle has been brilliant. She’s created a real sensation; it’s an epic play.

Tell me about the vision for the production…It’s 70s, and there’s a melting pot of accents – Irish, Scots, Welsh, English, which is really representative of all that King John ruled. It’s post-war and there’s a need for a new leader. The characters in our story want Arthur, who’s 10, to be the bright new thing... There’s this brilliant documentary on Netflix that I’ve been watching about Robert Kennedy who was the younger brother of John F Kennedy and everyone backed him as this bright thing that had lots of promise, and unfortunately it never happened. There’s that feeling in this play.

Will Gregory, who is a member of Goldfrapp, is doing the music so is really cool and seductive – as is John, who’s this lustful party animal so it’s very fitting.

Are you playing King John with your own lovely Welsh accent?Yes. I remember the first audition I had with Elle I did it in RP [received pronunciation] because I thought that’s what she wanted. She just said, ‘What are you doing? I know who you are!’ So I had to come back again and be myself, which is so much easier! Of course people say back in Shakespeare’s time the accent would have been Cornish or West Country. So the fact that there is a regional accent attached to it there is a closer similarity than doing RP.

Are you good with accents?Before I went to RADA I was useless but we had Helen Ashley, an incredible dialect teacher. Now I’m often American in things but my favourite accent to mimic is northern, just because my grandparents are northerners.

What is King John like?Highly manipulative. Apparently he was one of the most hated monarchs, but I’m trying to get an audience to sympathise with him as much as possible. It helps playing him as a young person who is put under immense pressure. He’s also incredibly impulsive and will do anything to get what he wants. He was one of eight children and no one ever thought he would get any land let alone run the largest dominion in Europe. So I think there’s a need to grasp when you’ve been shunned for all your life.

Is he a kind of antihero?I hope so. Initially I thought he might be a sociopath or a psychopath and there is research that points to that because he did so many things that were sadistic: he locked up friends, stabbed them to death and slowly tortured people. But in our version he feels a tremendous amount of grief – he loses his mum; and then the ordering of the killing of Arthur is so slight, so quick… you know sometimes when you have a conversation and someone will take a wrong meaning of what you’ve said? That’s what he thinks has happened. So the murder is accidental.

It’s not a play that’s performed very often and there’s quite a lot of criticism of it. Can you explain its appeal?It covers 17 years of his reign and of course it doesn’t cover every single thing that happens in it but Shakespeare has done an amazing job of consolidating the real big movements that he made – from parting with the church to killing his own nephew to raising taxes. It’s like coming to see a big condensed version where all the dramatic bits are shown. It’s just incredibly exciting.

How relevant is the play still? I feel like I come home from rehearsal and turn on BBC Parliament and just go ‘Yep this is why we are doing this play!’We’ve even changed Prime Ministers while we’ve been in rehearsals.

WHEN AND WHERE: King John runs at the Swan Theatre from today (Thursday) until 21st March 2020. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk

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