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Muddy meets actor Zoe Lambert

Zoe Lambert is making her RSC debut in The Winter’s Tale which never opened on stage due to Covid but has been adapted for telly on Sunday April 25, as part of BBC Lights Up.

Zoe Lambert in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Winter’s Tale is the RSC’s first ever TV premiere on Sun April 25 at 7pm on BBC Four – and will celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday weekend. Directed by Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director, this moving new contemporary production about a King (Leontes) – whose jealousy rips his family apart leading to him abandoning his baby girl Perdita – is set across 16-years from the 1953 coronation to the moon landings.

Originally from Yorkshire, Zoe has been based in the North East for the last 32 years. She lives in Newcastle with her husband Russ Coleman, a sculptor specialising in stone and concrete, and 14-year-old daughter Tilly. Previous TV roles include ITV soap Emmerdale in which she played lawyer Rachel Whatmore and Brian Roberts’s daughter Eileen, The Royal, Tracy Beaker Returns and Sugar.

Muddy grabbed Zoe for a quick chinwag ahead of filming… 

How did you get into acting?

I was not set on being an actor. I did a combined arts course in Newcastle and majored in drama, but it was more about community theatre and the politics of art. But in the last year we directed a play, and the director of a local community theatre company came to see it and offered me a part.

It felt like a real apprenticeship. I was a real jobbing actor, transporting the set in a van and taking theatre to community venues. It opened doors. It was a really exciting time for theatre in the late 80s and early 90s with lots of companies starting up in Newcastle.

I saw my former director just before I came to the RSC. He said it was an absolutely brilliant thing to do and was incredibly proud. He was in his 80s and died in the pandemic.

Career highlights

Working with Open Clasp theatre company (in Newcastle). They use agitation for change collaborating with disadvantaged women drawing out their voices. This felt real, urgent theatre. I’ve just finished filming Sugar for the BBC based on three monologues. I play Tracy who is a homeless woman. Her story came from a workshop Open Clasp’s artistic team did with groups of women. I like the way the work has grown, and the quality is so good.

Another highlight has been working with Northern Broadsides. They do Shakespeare and classics in a northern voice. I’ve done a number of classics with them and a Shakespeare set in Victorian times using northern vernacular. You often get a lot of people on stage at once – similar to the RSC – which I find a real thrill.

How was Emmerdale?

I went in as a functional lawyer in 1993 then they asked me to stay, and I ended up becoming the village lawyer. Then when there was a storyline where my character has a lesbian relationship with Zoe Tate, I was suddenly famous for a couple of weeks. I remember being in a department store in Newcastle and a lady said: ‘I recognise that voice – you naughty woman’. It was quite bizarre. I never get recognised.

The next time I appeared in Emmerdale playing a different role fans were outraged. There was a news article on one of the nationals saying I was Emmerdale’s ‘recycled actor’. I crashed a wedding fans were really looking forward to.

How does it feel to be part of The Winter’s Tale as part of BBC Lights Up after the live performance was postponed last year?

It’s been quite an amazing experience. Last year we were just going into tech rehearsal before lockdown. I think this play is charged with something special – our collective experience of the pandemic, it has resonance. There’s something really moving about Leontes speech to Hermione’s statue now. If we don’t have faith, we have hopelessness.

Joseph Kloska and Kemi-Bo Jacob as King Leontes and his wife Hermione. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

We carried on doing line-runs on Zoom for around two months after the play was postponed. The RSC has been very good and kept us regularly updated. We’ve done outdoor theatre at the Dell, worked in education and have our own WhatsApp chat – we’ve really united as a group.

Is it true your parents first met performing The Winter’s Tale at university?

Yes. They were both at Exeter University and in 1963 the university’s dramatic society put on a production of The Winter’s Tale. My dad directed it, my mum played Paulina and they fell in love. So, without The Winter’s Tale I wouldn’t be here!

My mum and dad are in their 80s now. It feels so wonderful we’re doing it. Since having Tilly, I just haven’t been away for work, but they told me ‘you have to do it’, they were thrilled, absolutely delighted.

My dad did English literature and went on to become an English teacher; my mum studied theology she worked on play schemes and in community theatre welfare.

Who do you play in The Winter’s Tale?

The Shepherdess raises King Leontes daughter Perdita (above played by Georgia Landers) from a baby to a young woman.

I am the Shepherdess – they have gender flipped it. I’m the one who finds the abandoned baby, Perdita, at the end of the first half where the tone changes. In contrast to the gravity of the court we have this hard working, down-to-earth Shepherdess who has a dignity and sense of proprietary to do the right thing and look after this baby. You meet her son, who is played by a young Deaf actor (William Grint), one of two Deaf actors in the play.

We communicate in a combination of British Sign Language (BSL) and home signing. As she’s in the 1950s and 1960s the Shepherdess wouldn’t have been taught BSL, so Erica wanted it to be accessible to an hearing and non-hearing audience. It feels so comfortable. For me that’s been the most exciting challenging and it really works well.

Erica was previously at Northern Stage in Newcastle, and she wanted Bohemia set in the North East of England – and so there are a few of from the North East in the play.

Erica has given Shakespeare’s play a modern twist. Set across a 16-year period in the 1950s and 60s it centres in a fascist Europe with horrors reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. What prep and research did you do as a cast?

We looked at the political landscape, the place of a woman within the farming community at that time, fascism and misogyny. When the Shepherdess is threatened with hanging by the King, this would have been a very real threat in the Sixties as hanging was not abolished until 1969.

Are you a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale?

I loved the book but found it seriously hard to watch on TV, but Erica was also inspired by Mad Men and I loved Mad Men! The costumes, styling and colours for The Winter’s Tale are gorgeous, really classy, lots of oranges, browns, blues and glass vases – definitely how I remember the 60s.

The gorgeous Mad Men inspired 1950s-style costumes. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione.

Is it shot as screenplay or as a live play on stage?

It’s shot as a play, filmed on stage at the RSC in front of an empty auditorium. But Leontes (Joseph Kloska) and Autolycus (Anne Odeke) have an intimate relationship with the camera.

With not being able to act, how have you kept busy over the last year?

Some facilitation writing work with Open Clasp Theatre. I did a soup run in the West End where 19,000 bowls of soup were delivered. Like most people, I’ve focused on family, but I haven’t seen my parents for a year-and-a-half. They did VSO in China, Outer Mongolia and are now living in Macedonia, but I think they’re planning on coming back to Yorkshire as their health is ailing.

Favourite actors

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in hit BBC show Happy Valley. Image courtesy of BBC/Red Productions/Ben Blackall

Sarah Lancashire, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters. I like actors who can do both high comedy and incredible pathos.

Favourite plays

I love Chekhov. The Cherry Orchard I think is brilliant and The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht.

Is there a part of the UK you’re particularly drawn to?

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

Northumberland. Embleton Bay is a beautiful beach. A group of us go there for BBQs every winter and summer; it has gorgeous sand dunes. You can see the history of the place and the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s a really interesting piece of land between the north of England and Scotland.

Favourite hangout?

The Old Coal Yard in Newcastle. My husband’s studio is behind it. It has real charm and was set up by a friend. They have craft beers, bands and street food – some friends run a Fiesta kitchen. I really love it.

I love Stratford. Walking up the Greenway and getting a drink from the train carriage café (Bobby’s) or coffees at Midsummer. I’ve missed by daughter Tilly so much. When she comes to visit me, we’re going to get takeout from The Giggling Squid and go for drive!

Best lockdown TV?

Call my Agent, © Christophe Brachet/Netflix

Call my Agent, I thought that was brilliant. Succession kept me going before that and I was so bereft when Grayson Perry’s Art Club ended it was heart-warming and genuine.

The Winter’s Tale, will be screened on BBC Four/iPlayer on Sun April 25 at 7pm, as part of BBC Lights Up celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday weekend.

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