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Charlotte Cornwell returns to the RSC after 32 years

Charlotte Cornwell talks to Barbara Hodgson about her return to the Royal Shakespeare Company after 32 years

Charlotte Cornwell as Gertrude in Hamlet
Charlotte Cornwell as Gertrude in Hamlet

Charlotte Cornwell has her half-brother – world-famous spy novelist John Le Carre – to thank for becoming an actress.

It was early advice from the author, whose real name is David Cornwell, that set her on a path that took her to Rock Follies stardom in 1970s and has since opened up all sorts of directions in a career taking in stage, TV and film.

The 64-year-old, who will be in Newcastle playing two roles in the RSC season later this month, recalls: “I was at a point in my life when I didn’t know what I was doing.

“And he just suggested: ‘I think you are creative. Have you ever thought about the theatre or anything like that?’.”

The idea took root, and it wasn’t long before the young Londoner was taking advantage of her natural abilities.

“I auditioned for drama school a five-minute walk from where my mother and I lived – and I got in by some miracle.”

And, starting out in 1971, she went on to huge success.

Charlotte played Rosalind in Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed 1978 production of As You Like It at the Aldwych Theatre in London. It had rave reviews and she remembers standing outside the theatre beneath a huge sign bearing her picture and name.

“I was 28 and I thought, what do I do now?”

But she’d found her niche, and her love of theatre, which took her on tours to America, never lost its shine, launching a career that has firmly established her as one of the most versatile actresses of both stage and screen, with roles in films such as The Krays and The Russia House and on TV in Silent Witness and – still memorable after 40 years – in Rock Follies as one of the all-girl band alongside Rula Lenska and Julie Covington in the award-winning 1970s series.

She’s done TV in America too, including The West Wing, and lived there for several years, until recently teaching at an acting school in California. She returned last year and now she’s back in the RSC for the first time in 32 years, with roles in two of this season’s plays: Gertrude in David Farr’s production of Hamlet and The Countess in Nancy Meckler’s All’s Well That Ends Well, both coming to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

She’s delighted to be back on stage, but says much is different compared to the company of old.

“I did Twelfth Night with Terry Hands and nobody was ever late – in a sense it was a bit more like an English pubic school,” she tells me.

“I love it now – it’s much more laid-back; a much looser atmosphere.”

She adds: “There’s been a change in the acting style of young actors. This isn’t about good or bad, just different.

“I think it’s because there’s so much focus on screen work.”

As an acting tutor herself, she’s spotted how Americanisms are creeping in, with a bit of Marlon Brando mumbling being the trend. But here she’s seen some wonderful young actors, citing Pippa Nixon who plays Rosalind in As You Like It, which is also part of this year’s Newcastle season. When Cornwell was a young actress starting out, “all we wanted to do was get a job in a repertory company. It was the thing”.

Actors were “workhorses” and TV or film “was something you did when you had to pay the rent”. Then you’d go back to the theatre.

On the technical side too, there are differences: “There are no longer fly men pulling on ropes!”

Her latest roles are demanding ones: as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude she has a revealing, overwrought scene where she’s on her knees with Jonathan Slinger who plays her son.

It’s hugely emotional and captures true feeling in a character often portrayed as cold and ruthlessly ambitious in her marriage to Claudius, the brother and murderer of her husband, the king.

Mother-of-one Cornwell sees Gertrude differently, though she admits she struggled with the character.

“It’s a difficult role – Gertrude is a real challenge.

“I said to (director and RSC associate director) David Farr, ‘I don’t have any answers about her’. It’s like I’m chasing the woman through a series of rooms, trying to catch her and find out who she is.

“There’s never a moment to say why she did this.” She adds: “Gertrude is a sort of tragic figure.

“It’s a very, very challenging role. I’ve seen her played as an alcoholic, a lush, a nymphomaniac or a bimbo.

“I don’t think she’s any of these things.”

Having been married to the king for decades, the widowed queen married Claudius “for political reasons to protect Hamlet and his inheritance,” she says. “And she discovers sex again at 60 and ... whoah!”

But later she’s consumed with guilt over that fateful decision, as well as the knock-on effect on Hamlet’s lover Ophelia, whom she’d wanted her son to marry: “She and Ophelia are manipulated by the men. The two women are so isolated in the play.”

But she’s the focus of blame by her son and the situation in which she finds herself is heartbreaking, says Charlotte, and tells me she actually burst into tears on stage one night.

So much of a performance is affected by the actor’s mood at the time, she says. She’s just been analysing her previous night’s work and, ever the professional, is thinking of ways to better it.

She’s an actress who loves the changing nature of the theatre and having a live audience and is clearly happy being back where it all began.

“I’ve always been in love with the stage,” she says.

Hamlet launches the RSC season at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on October 18 and runs until October 26. It’s followed by As You Like It from October 29 to November 2, and All’s Well That Ends Well from November 5-9. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112121.

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