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Girls on Top!

Muddy meets the super-talented Warwickshire actor making her RSC debut as a gay shepherdess and a badly-behaved female suitor in two gender-swapping comedies.

(L-R) Lucy Phelps and Amelia Donkor as Rosalind and Silvia in As You Like It at the RST. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

With The Favourite sweeping the board at The BAFTA’s, there’s an increasing appetite for stronger and more complex female-led stories. Look no further… This season the RSC turns sexual politics on its head in two gender-swapping Shakespeare comedies, As You Like It and The Taming of the ShrewMuddy caught up with super-lovely LAMDA-trained Warwickshire actor Amelia Donkor, a former pupil at North Leamington School, who is making her RSC debut in both plays.

In Kimberley Sykes’ As You Like It she plays shepherdess Silvia – originally a male character, Silvius – who suffers from unrequited love when the woman she admires, Phoebe, falls in love with Ganymede – Lucy Phelps’ Rosalind in disguise.

Director Justin Audibert puts forward an unconventional topsy-turvy vision of The Taming of the Shrew where the women hold all the cards. In Shakespeare’s most problematic of gender power-plays he places his finger firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist by casting female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa. Headstrong Katherine and her sister Bianca have been switched to male characters played by Joseph Arkley and James Cooney. Amelia plays Bianco’s female suitor, Hortensia.

Currently living in London, Amelia shares a place with her younger brother, who aptly works for the government’s Equalities Office. When she’s not acting, chilled-out Amelia can be found practising Vinyasa Flow.

How old were you when you realised you first wanted to be an actor?

I was always one of those people who had lots of fingers in lots of pies – I did dance, drama, netball and a spell at the National Youth Theatre in London. I had this big dream to study English at Oxford – then one day I came home from school and said to Mum: ‘I wanted to do acting’.

Which actors have inspired you?

The RSC played a part in that, as growing up in Leamington I didn’t know anyone in the profession. I came here to do drama workshop days. There’s lots of inspirational people I’ve seen on stage, especially Jane Lapotaire, who also did some workshops. I vividly remember seeing a beautiful production of Measure for Measure with Emma Fielding as Isabella.

There’s been lots of talk in the press about the uphill struggles of working-class drama students with funding cuts and rising fees. Are things improving?

It was quite a big step for me, a girl from North Leamington School moving to London.  I spent a lot of time ‘pretending’ – I know I was at drama school! There were people who had families in the business, and they often talked about plays I hadn’t heard of. I only knew the ones we’d studied at school, but I’d nod and pretend I knew what they were talking about. It was quite a leap for someone from state school which is why it’s so important drama schools are changing for the better and becoming more accountable, especially when it comes to supporting actors afterwards when you’re trying to get work.

What are your contemporaries at LAMDA up to now?

People all around me are doing so well. One of my best friends, Robert Emms, was working on Cleaning Up (as Glynn in the ITV insider-trader drama opposite Sheridan Smith) and Matthew Needham was in Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre, which was just unreal! We had this big reunion at this year’s Vault Festival in London and went to see our friend Joanne Ferguson in Lola there.

Amelia Donkor in rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew

What’s it like making your debut at the RSC?

Doing both plays at the same time is wild – it’s really exciting! The RSC audition process was super-speedy – I virtually started rehearsals for As You Like It the next week. I keep having to give myself a bit of a pinch. I’m going to get paid every week to play for people and tell stories. To be able to something I’ve want to do I keep thinking: ‘Wow I’m so lucky’! My mum is thrilled. She used to live in Studley as a teenager and used to go to the theatre regularly when Terry Hands was Artistic Director. We’ve been going through all her old RSC programmes.

The last two years have been wonderful. I spent the summer in Scarborough doing 39 Steps and before that Hull Truck Theatre doing a new James Graham play The Culture. The year before I was at Birmingham Rep with phenomenal blow-your-mind actors in What Shadows. I genuinely do feel grateful I’m still getting stuff. I work really hard and feel very lucky to be making the most amazing productions, and telling stories.

You’re one of 27 actors in one of the company’s most culturally diverse casts including a 50/50 gender balance and deaf and disabled actors. How does that feel? 

Amelia in rehearsals as Silvia in As You Like It

I’ve never been in such a big cast before. To have people from all over the country, the 50/50 gender-split, and deaf and disabled actors is brilliant! For me it’s been really cool learning new ways to communicate. With Charlotte (Arrowsmith), who is deaf we have been learning sign language. Diversity is such a buzz word and it can be abused. It’s more about how we can learn from each other – that’s what’s exciting to me.

What’s your take on your two characters: Silvia and Hortensia?  

Both of my roles are re-gendered. For Silvia I am working from the place of how painful unrequited love is and how love can make you blind as to why someone is being an idiot. But Silvia knows her, and Phoebe are meant to be together. As You Like It is set in a place-less world, we’re just humans. For our costumes we could choose what we wanted from the wardrobe and work on our own ideas with Bretta (Gerecke), who is Costume and Lighting Director – another first to have both roles combined. There’s lots of faux fur and bohemian hippies, but it’s not set in the 60’s.

I love Hortensia. I am allowed to behave badly. Justin (Audibert) said: ‘You can be more horrible. We don’t have to love you’.  As a woman I’m aware of how much we want people to like us. It’s fun to be really bold. We are all humans – we can all behave really well and really badly. Suddenly, when it’s a headstrong man being tamed by a woman you realise the expectations we have about male and female relationships are really weird. Petruchia (Claire Price) still does some pretty terrible things, but looking at it through a different lens makes us question the play and its themes a little more.

The Taming of the Shrew’s director Justin Audibert in rehearsals

Other than acting, what do you enjoy doing?

I’ve just finished my yoga teacher training. I do Vinyasa Flow. It’s been quite trans-formative.

What’s your signature outfit?

I spend my life in leggings and a baggy jumper. It means I can always practise yoga. It’s so different to a few years ago – I used to be glamorous. Now I can wear seven pairs of leggings in rotation! But I’m always wearing bright colours – today I’ve got on orange fluffy boots.

When you’re home in Leamington, where are you drawn back to?

I love going to the art gallery. It’s so small, but perfectly formed. Being back in Warwickshire you appreciate the space, I like walking in Jephson Gardens. London is so big and it’s a chore to get everywhere; whereas in Stratford or Leamington you can just walk to someone’s house or go for a really nice coffee.

Lucy Phelps as Rosalind in As You Like It, Amelia on the right

Seen anything good on TV or in the cinema lately?

I’m enjoying watching Cleaning Up on ITV. I’m hoping to catch-up and see The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk after we open. One thing I always keep up with during rehearsals is Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 – I’m obsessed with it! I listen to the Podcasts.

What’s your signature scent?

I don’t wear perfume. I love lavender water spray. I carry it in my bag.

Which book has had the most impact on you?

I love reading. The authors who’ve changed my life by the way they write are: Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood.

Dream holiday destination

I just love to travel.  My mum’s a retired teacher. When she was younger she did VSO and worked in Zambia and the Seychelles. My brother and I have caught the travelling bug. All three of us like to go on family holidays. In the future we’d like to go to Southern Africa or the Caribbean.

Best gig?

Beyoncé in Zurich. She was sold out over here and my friend said her aunty and uncle live there, so we bought tickets. I don’t normally do things like that. It feels so luxurious and was so expensive there. But we were lucky to stay with her family. The gig was brilliant! She even played some Destiny’s Child songs – I felt like a teenager. I cried!

“In five years’, time I’ll be…”

This is quite cliched – I’ve realised the most important thing is to be happy and live every day to the full. I hope I’m still working. I’ve also been doing some of my own writing. Maybe I’ll be a yoga teacher in Bali.

As You Like It has just opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in Stratford-upon-Avon and runs until Aug 31; The Taming of the Shrew, runs March 8 – 31. For the first time, the RSC will tour 3 repertory shows – As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure – to six regional venues: The Lowry, Manchester; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Newcastle Theatre Royal; The Marlowe, Canterbury; Theatre Royal, Plymouth and Grand Theatre, Blackpool. rsc

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