Sophia, 18, takes on Hamlet role at Playbox Theatre
As Sir Ian McKellen, 82, prepares to tread the boards as Hamlet 50 years after he first played him, closer to home 18-year-old Sophia Rowlatt is also warming up to play the troubled prince. Here she tells Gill Sutherland about the flexibility of the role and how it is being interpreted for the Playbox production, which has its last performance on Saturday.
When the production came up did you think, “That’s it, I want to be Hamlet”?
I don’t think I had that in mind at all but when casting went up I genuinely thought they were going to do Hamlet as the classic tall male blonde – that kind of vibe. It was a real shock to get the role, but so exciting. A female Hamlet is a very interesting route to go down. It’s the first Playbox show after reopening, and a good bold one to begin with.
When you got the part, what was your reaction?
I was completely amazed. I think one of the initial thoughts was probably about lines, because there are so many, and everyone knows Hamlet. There are so many purple passages within it. There is a lot of pressure that comes with that but I’m very excited as well.
What do you think director Stewart McGill was thinking in casting you?
In the rehearsal room, Stewart says Hamlet is Hamlet. That’s kind of his motto for this show. Hamlet is not necessarily male or female. The way that we’re playing it is quite androgynous. With things like costume we don’t have a stereotypically masculine or feminine costume it’s very genderless which I like. Hamlet is of course referred to as a male but I don’t think Hamlet is necessarily male. We definitely want to reinforce that: Hamlet is just who Hamlet is. There’s no baggage or preconception.
What costume are you wearing?
In the beginning its sort of trousers and an oversized blazer kind of look. Then we do go for a dress, which is interesting and that kind of does strike like female vibes. It’s a mix with both nods to feminity.
There’s so much concern about young people’s mental health at the moment – is that something you’re picking up on?
Yes of course. We’ve talked a lot about vulnerability. I don’t want to refer too much to this whopper of a year, but I think the isolation that Hamlet feels definitely resonates with audiences today. I think that is something they will hopefully pick up on. We were saying from the very first rehearsal that Hamlet is not mad he is merely someone that needs help, guidance, maybe therapy. I think Hamlet in the modern day would be entitled to that. We wanted to play on the madness slightly because Hamlet is a playful character, but Hamlet is not clinically mad. He’s a normal person that had horrible stuff happen to him. I am referring to Hamlet as him but I guess it should be them – but the character is non-binary.
Your mum works in counselling – has that been an influence?
She works in CBT which is cognitive behavioural therapy, and at schools. I think when we have in depth conversations about mental health she can say ‘well Hamlet would probably get this strategy here’ because she works in bereavement counselling as well. She says it’s completely understandable that Hamlet is feeling this way because he’s lost his father and so many people around him end up dead. The bereavement would definitely be something a counsellor would draw on 100 per cent.
What do you hope the audience will get from this and find fresh in your production?
I think I want to really draw on the Hamlet is Hamlet thing. I remember Stewart got a few emails at the very beginning saying, ’Hamlet’s a female? What is this? This is so interesting.’ But I want people not to dwell on that too much and just see Hamlet as Hamlet, a distinct character, rather than Hamlet as a girl.
Tell me about your history with Playbox?
I joined when I was four, so really diddy. I’ve been in quite a few productions over the years including a few Shakespeares: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado, and Hamlet. Playbox has taught me so much and it’s something I’m going to be very sad to leave next year. It has taught me so many skills: confidence and being able to put myself out there and having that faith in myself. As an actor you have to have so much faith and confidence in your own work because if you don’t it’s likely that no one else will. You have to be headstrong in that department.
Do you hope to go into acting professionally?
I’m having a gap year next year where I will be doing my drama school auditions. But I’ve got my places at uni to study social anthropology as a back-up. I’ve thought a lot about it, and when I was about 14 going into the Professionals workshops at Playbox, I was thinking drama school was absolutely the only route in and I couldn’t go in any other way. Now I think if I go to uni I might get an acting job five years down the line and absolutely love it. There are other ways in – working for a company or with amateur theatre groups. Drama can always be in your life.
Have you seen any Hamlets you’ve been inspired by?
I’ve tried really hard not to. As soon as I got the part I thought I’ve got to watch so many versions of Hamlet, so I watched David Tenant’s which was brilliant. But then I thought that I don’t want to watch lots of female Hamlet’s because I don’t want that to influence how I play the character. I think it’s good to take inspiration, but I don’t want it to get to the point where I am copying other versions.
Stewart said midway through a rehearsal not to watch any of the clips of soliloquies. I think it’s good that I’ve tried not to, to keep it fresh and our own.
We were talking about Ian McKellen – he’s 82 and you’re 18, both playing Hamlet. What do you make of that?
I like how diverse that is. We’ve talked a lot about when is too diverse, but I think that I do really like it with the whole Ian McKellen thing. Especially with our Hamlet it’s so active so I was thinking an 82-year-old man you’ve got to take your hat off to him because it’s a really tricky part to do. The woman who is playing Ophelia is a lot younger so I think that will be an interesting dynamic. But it returns to Hamlet is Hamlet, because if Hamlet can be any gender then why can’t he be any age?
What’s the atmosphere backstage like?
It’s a really lovely dynamic everyone gets on very well. It’s good because we’re all like above licensing age [16 plus, so no chaperones needed]. No disrespect to the younger ones at all because they’re amazing. But it feels like we’ve got such a drive and we managed to pick it up very quickly and can bounce ideas off each other. We’re all so close as a cast, we’ve grown up together and we know each other’s acting styles and we know how to cover for each other if people go wrong. It’s a very lovely vibe.