BWW Interview: Gillian Bevan On Playing The Title Role in CYMBELINE

Gillian Bevan in Cymbeline

Actress Gillian Bevan has done everything from Holby City and Teachers on TV to RSC productions and extensive musical theatre, including Into the Woods, Billy Elliot and Grand Hotel. She's currently starring in the RSC's Cymbeline - the first woman to play the title role for the company. The production comes to the Barbican next week.

What was your first experience of theatre?

I had very inspiring English teachers at school, which was an all-girls convent. They really believed Shakespeare and musical theatre was of the essence in order to educate us girls. So I was playing the lead comic role in Gilbert and Sullivan aged 12. I also played Mark Anthony when I was 13, so cross-casting has always been a natural thing. I then joined the Manchester Youth Theatre - I still have good friends from that. David Threlfall and I were juvenile leads together back in the day.

When did you realise you wanted to act professionally?

I never really thought about it when I was little - I was mad about ponies and other things. But my teachers just assumed it was what I would do. When I joined Manchester Youth Theatre, I realised there was such a thing as drama school. I'm from Stockport, and it just wasn't in my realm. I ended up auditioning for my local education authority to get a grant, performing Shakespeare speeches to local councillors. That worked, and I then got into Central.

How do you choose projects?

I absolutely love theatre, of all kinds. When I'm doing a musical, I want to do a straight play next and vice versa. I try to make brave decisions not to repeat myself. I'd done Follies and I could have done more West End musicals, but I instead chose to come to the RSC. I love the variety - doing Into the Woods and then straight into Cymbeline. It's constant reinvention: different people know me as a TV sitcom girl, doing something like Teachers, or from musicals or classical drama.

I love being constantly surprised, and surprising an audience. I remember at the RSC 25 years ago doing the extraordinary double of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Celia in As You Like It. I never imagined I'd do a regendered Polonius, and then Cymbeline. It's very special being the first woman to play the part at the RSC.

What do you think sparked the trend for regendered Shakespeare?

There's something in the zeitgeist, isn't there? Michelle Terry, Glenda Jackson, the Donmar plays, Tamsin Grieg. There's definitely more of an open attitude to the fact that we can longer, in 2016, be content that there aren't enough parts for women in Shakespeare. When Melly Still was asked by Greg Doran to do this play, she said "I'd love to, but not with just three women". We've ended up with a 50/50 gender split.

There was a survey of the make-up of Arts Council-funded theatres, and it was something like 67% of audiences are women, 62% of those who pay for tickets are women, but they're only represented in 20% of parts. What does that say to a 14-year-old girl watching? You're only one-fifth as important as the blokes? You see that in politics as well, and in business. It's just not acceptable, given that women are 51% of the population.

Bethan Cullinae in Cymbeline

What would you say to people who object to cross-casting?

Well, if you can't understand it in abstract, you've all got mothers, sisters, aunties, nieces, friends - do you want that lack of opportunities for them, or do you want an enlightened, equal society? The key thing is, it benefits all of us. It's fantastic to see the Women's Equality Party doing such good work, the 50:50 campaign, Tonic Theatre. We just have to keep cracking on.

There was a wonderful agent who came to see Hamlet when we did it at the Royal Exchange, and he was really blown away. I asked "How many times have you seen this play?", and he said: "Darling, it must be at least 28 times, but I heard things tonight I'd never heard before." That's really heartening - regendering can have a profound effect.

Did you have to make many changes to Cymbeline?

Not really - there was very little discussion in the rehearsal room about it, other than changing King to Queen, and of course her spouse is now this wicked duke. You're still saying the same lines, but you can figure out the effect that different perspective has on the text. It's an extraordinary piece - it's like Game of Thrones with iambic pentameter. There's a strange mishmash of late plays, with echoes of The Tempest, Winter's Tale. It's this Jacobean rollicking roller coaster. Our production is a dystopian future at the heart of which is these very relevant ideas about what it means to be British.

Did you know the play well beforehand?

I'd never seen it before and didn't know much about it. I live about 40 minutes from Stratford, so I went the Stratford bookshop straightaway and bought the Arden edition and a crammer. I'm very dyslexic, so I'm slow at reading, but it's such a rich piece - you can absolutely understand the relationships, the themes and characters. It's complicated though, and Melly's done a great job at making sure there aren't any longeurs, putting in great music, interesting ideas, differentiating the European scenes, and really getting an audience to engage. It's not in any way a conventional production, even though it is faithful to the text.

Gillian Bevan in Cymbeline

What's it like working with Melly?

I was desperately trying to work with her at the National - it's a real thrill. She's a designer as well, so she's got a great aesthetic sense, a really visionary, collaborative approach, and a forensic eye for detail. She won't let you get away with anything not rooted in truthfulness. She's assembled a great team too - Dave Price's music, brilliant movement from Emily Mytton.

What was your way into the character?

The loss of her two children early on is a powerful motivating force, both on a personal and a political level - I can definitely relate to how that feels. It's governed her. And then her fight for a sense of national identity alongside her own identity is fascinating. I know there are people who just want to see Shakespeare in doublet and hose, but when the ideas are this urgent, it's really enlightening and challenging to open these plays up.

It's also very empowering playing this role. Strutting around in magnificent, almost Israeli battle dress, taking on the envoy - I loved that. And leading troops into battle. Anna Fleischle's brilliant design is part-throwback, with this almost Boudica Celtic queen feel, and strongly contemporary.

What's extremely thrilling is because of the regendering and colour-blind casting as well, it feels like a complete united nation, so I think it speaks to a younger audience and reflects their world. We're getting a completely different demographic, as well as the core RSC audience. The response is just amazing, and of course since the referendum it's become more darkly comic, then suddenly quite tragic and poignant. I love that it turns on a sixpence.

What's next for you?

I'm hankering to do more TV - as I always am when I'm doing theatre, and vice versa! But we'll see what happens. I never thought I'd be playing Cymbeline at the RSC, and here I am. It feels so much like a play for our times, and an actress taking on this role is part of that.

Cymbeline comes to the Barbican 31 October-17 December, as part of the RSC's London Season

Watch a trailer below

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz © RSC

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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