BWW Interview: Leah Harvey On Joining The All-female SHAKESPEARE TRILOGY

Leah Harvey in rehearsal

Leah Harvey has just graduated from LAMDA, and is now making her professional debut in Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy: three plays staged in a 13-week repertory season at King's Cross Theatre. The Tempest is currently playing, with Julius Caesar beginning on 27 October and Henry IV on 17 November.

How did you first get the acting bug?

I just always wanted to do it. Someone said I could sing in primary school, when I was about seven or eight, and I loved performing and seeing the process of putting something together. Then I saw Coram Boy at the National - that was absolutely magical. I wanted to be up on that stage. There were loads of children involved, so it seemed possible.

Did you grow up in London?

Yes, in East London - Upton Park. I appreciate London more now I'm a bit older. I didn't have much of a chance to explore while I was at stage school. But it's such a rich, cultural city - it's a brilliant place to be doing what I'm doing.

Where you train?

I went to LAMDA - I just graduated in July.

This isn't bad for a first job!

I know, I can't believe it! I'm sitting backstage and this is still a bit of a dream. I was in my final year, doing a few auditions, and my agent put me up for the part of Miranda. They'd been looking for someone for quite a while. I actually found out I'd got it when we were doing the dress rehearsal for our final show, and I burst into tears in the foyer. I've always wanted to do Shakespeare, and to work with Phyllida Lloyd, and this amazing female cast, and the Donmar - it's just overwhelming.

Had you seen the all-female Shakespeares before?

I hadn't, I was studying, but I heard lots about them. It's a really exciting thing to be happening. It's changing theatre - this is a step in the right direction.

Leah Harvey in rehearsal

What does it mean to you to be part of a diverse company?

When I was younger, there weren't many diverse performers on TV or in theatre. Now, I feel like the world is my oyster. I'm as scared as anyone entering the industry, but I have a positive feeling that if I work hard, good things will happen.

Not everything's perfect, but to see people who look like me, who come from the same kind of area, doing well and making quality work, that really gives you a good attitude about it. Any young girls, particularly ethnic minority girls, can feel there's stuff out there for us. You don't have to look a certain way to play a character. We're all human beings, and we just want to tell stories.

The Donmar under-25s ticket scheme is great too. Where I grew up, in Newham, theatre's not the biggest thing in the world - it's for those who can afford to go sit in box seats. But there are people where I live who can come to this and see themselves on stage. There might be a 13-year-old in the audience who wants to be an actress and can look at us, thinking "That's me. That's my friend. This is for us too."

What's it like coming into an all-female cast?

It's fantastic. We're all women, but we're incredibly different - in age, ethnicity, background, everything. It makes it really rich for audiences to see this range of people up on stage, and it shows there's no such thing as "female" roles or types.

What does the prison setting bring to the plays?

It gives it a lot more depth - you're telling the stories of real women as well. And with the trilogy, you can really take the audience on a journey with these framing characters, as well those in the Shakespeares. You can see where they stand in the group, how important status is, how things shift over the course of the plays.

Tell us about your inmate character

She's called Aisha, and she's the youngest member of the group - as am I! She struggles with mental illness, and being in the prison drama group has really helped her deal with those issues. There's so many reasons why people end up in prison - not just that they've committed a crime, but so many factors that put them in that position. There's a vulnerability too.

Phyllida Lloyd in rehearsal

Which other Shakespearean characters are you playing?

As well as Miranda, I'm the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar, and Poins in Henry IV. So a really diverse lot, which is great. Plus that thread running through of Aisha and how this sheds light on her mental illness.

What's it been like working with Phyllida?

She makes everything so much easier than you expect. She knows what everyone needs and how everyone's brains work - it's like a jigsaw puzzle. I was nervous coming in, as a lot of the cast worked on the other plays before, but we focussed on The Tempest to start with, and now I'm more comfortable, it's amazing dipping our toes into the other plays and seeing everyone transform so massively.

We've done lots of typical rehearsal things, like going through the text and putting it into our own words - that gives you so many connections and opens up all these doors. I've learned so much just from watching Phyllida and all these great actresses, the dynamics between all these characters. I feel like I'm back at school!

And you get to work closely with the great Harriet Walter

That's the biggest treat - she's just fantastic. I'm in awe of her. She went to LAMDA as well, but she's the leader of the company and I'm the baby! It's great having her playing my dad, as we spend a lot of time together - I just try to soak up all her wisdom.

All the cast are fantastic, and it's exciting to be playing roles where you have something intellectual to say to one another, rather than playing the lover to guys. I do enjoy the lover roles, but it's great to delve into all these things that were off-limits in the past. I feel like I get to show so much of myself in these plays. Plus there's dancing, and music from the brilliant Joan Armatrading. I get to play the guitar. It's a mix of genres, like we've got a Caribbean island theme, with Shiloh Coke, steel pan musician extraordinaire.

Does the female cast alter the dynamic of the plays?

In a funny way, it doesn't change it that much. What we're striving towards is showing they're all just humans. My Miranda is more non-gendered, partly because she was brought up on this island, so she doesn't have any idea about social codes - how to be with people, how to behave differently with men or women. She acts on instinct.

There's one line where she bursts into tears. She's talking to Ferdinand, professing her love, and she says "I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of". The first time we did it in rehearsal I went into Victorian damsel-in-distress mode, and we changed it so it's more of an overwhelmed feeling. She doesn't know how to handle this new emotion. So I don't think the female casting means you have to read things in a certain way - it's more that it liberates you to try different things. You realise the labels you put on yourself in terms of gendered behaviour.

Harriet Walter in rehearsal

Have you noticed that in your own life?

Yes, since starting the play I've really noticed how we take up space. You sit there on the train, and there are women with their legs crossed, trying to take up as little space as possible, and men just sprawling out, not caring. Now I take up lots of space! It's funny seeing how we carry ourselves in life, whether it's on the bus or Tube, or just walking down the street. There's a lot internalised. You're never taught it, but somehow that difference is there - girls must like pink and not get in the way of boys.

I think The Tempest is so interesting about identity and how it's formed and affected by society. It's opened my eyes to that a lot. I do think things are changing, but these stories have to be written. I hope, in 10 years' time, that diverse casts are the norm, and plays are written about every country, every community, men and women equally. Brexit feels like a huge step back, though. Some of my friends have experienced really negative responses from strangers since the vote - it does feel scary at times. We all need to band together and build, rather than tearing each other down.

Are you going to New York with the plays?

Yes! I can't even think about it - we've got to do this first. I haven't travelled much, and I've never been to America. It's going to be the most surreal thing. I hope we have time to see some other shows and just experience it all.

What other projects would you like to do in future?

I just want to do as much as possible. Hopefully a mix of things. I'd love to do period drama - I saw Gugu [Mbatha-Raw] in Belle and thought "I can do that!" I really enjoy stage fighting, so maybe an action drama. I'd love to show that women are strong, we can fight, make music, love, think, everything. Change the world!

The Shakespeare Trilogy is at King's Cross Theatre until 17 December



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From This Author Marianka Swain

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