Josette Simon: 'Powerful women are reduced to being dishonourable'

As she returns to the RSC to play Cleopatra, Josette Simon explains why there is so much more to the queen than a strumpet

As Josette Simon neared the end of her drama training, the principal called her in for a chat. Simon already had Shakespeare in her sights, but he squashed that dream. “He said not to get my hopes up because it was very unlikely that I would be doing classics or be at the RSC – because of the old brown.” Simon extends a slender arm, strokes her skin. “What a thing to put in your head before you start.”

Simon’s discouraging principal perhaps meant to be pragmatic. At that point, no black performer had played a Shakespeare heroine with the Royal Shakespeare Company. So when the Leicester-born actor did make her stage debut with the company in 1982, initially in tiny roles, she soon made history. A landmark Rosaline, Isabella and Titania, she is now, after 17 years away, returning as Cleopatra in the RSC’s ambitious four-play Rome season.

Simon, who has spent the morning rehearsing the heroine’s death, adjusts her soft-cowled collar, and confirms that the part was on her wish list. “It’s a role that has popped up quite a lot in my career,” she says. “For all the wrong reasons. I was first asked to do it when I was about 20, which was really stupid, because it was based on being black and someone thinking, ‘Oh, how exotic.’ I wanted to do it at one of the flagships, to be honest. It wasn’t the right time – and then it was.”

Josette Simon (Cleopatra) and Antony Byrne (Antony) in Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare theatre.
Josette Simon (Cleopatra) and Antony Byrne (Antony) in Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Shakespeare’s Roman plays – where rhetoric can squash fact, where leadership systems like monarchy, mob or military rule are probed – seem uncomfortably pertinent. The season’s director, Angus Jackson, describes Cleopatra as “the single most powerful figure in any of the plays”. In her first RSC season, Simon played a handmaiden to Helen Mirren’s queen, but that won’t inform her own performance. “It’s so long ago,” she says. “That was Helen Mirren’s subjective interpretation, this is mine.”

So where do you start with a character praised for infinite variety? “I did a massive amount of research,” she says. Shakespeare’s folio and sources; historic accounts and recent biographies. “There are no contemporary accounts [of Cleopatra]. So what’s the truth? It’s always someone’s subjective view, and it’s very often male.” Octavius Caesar conquered Egypt and took control of the historical record – “and he didn’t like her. One of the things that happens to powerful women is that people feel in control by reducing them to something dishonourable. The one thing about Cleopatra that you hear all the time is that she’s this sexual creature. They reduce her to a nymphomaniac, a strumpet.”

Above all, Simon insists, Cleopatra was “an incredible politician”. She restored her kingdom to prosperity, spoke several languages, was ruled by head as much as heart. Shakespeare, she says, gets it. “The only person who does her justice and seems to understand there is so much more to her than a bewitching enchantress is Shakespeare. This is not just a play about passion, it’s a play about politics – and she’s as much a player in the political narrative as Octavius or Antony.

“That easily gets lost. We forget this woman has a mind. One of the attractions for Antony is not just the sex and the passion, but a meeting of minds, which can be very, very sexy.” It is still, she argues, “a great love story” but “they make two devastating mistakes”. What mistakes? She explodes with mirth. “I’m not going to tell you! You’ll have to see it.”

We don’t dwell on the fact that Simon will be the first black actor to play Cleopatra at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare theatre. “I hate the term ‘black actor’,” she says baldly, scoffing at early reviews that inevitably referenced “the black Josette Simon” – “as if there’s a white one knocking around! I’m black, which I’m proud of, but it doesn’t mean anything. You’re an actor, full stop.”

Sci-fi star … as Dayna in TV series Blake’s 7.
Sci-fi star … as Dayna in TV series Blake’s 7. Photograph: BBC

Acting hadn’t always seemed on the cards for Simon, who was made an OBE in 2000. You can’t overestimate how she has inspired younger artists like Noma Dumezweni, who says: “For me, growing up in Ipswich and trying to find people that looked like me, she was the one. I couldn’t stop wondering about her, I couldn’t stop reading about her. She looked like me – so it was a possibility.”

Simon’s parents, who both came to Leicester from the Caribbean, worked at Thorn EMI, and Simon shone at languages at her girls’ grammar. Only a chance audition for the choir in Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat put theatre on her radar. So it wasn’t school that sparked her love of Shakespeare? “Absolutely not!” she shoots back. “School is Shakespeare’s worst enemy, quite frankly. Everybody leaves school thinking Shakespeare is boring as hell, and it is at school. He wrote it to be on its feet. We never got it on its feet, never ever. Once I started doing it physically, I was relieved that I did understand it. My love of it grew.”

That first season in Stratford was a golden year, full of established names and stars to be. “Tony Sher, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Sinéad Cusack … You had this bedrock of extraordinary experience, and I took every opportunity to soak up everything. At that time, the RSC operated a system with a foundation of fantastic veterans, and if you were a young actor you were nurtured. They gave you small parts and if you did quite well they gave you another.”

Standing apart … Simon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the RSC in 1984.
Standing apart … Simon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the RSC in 1984. Photograph: Joe Cocks Studio Collection/Shakespeares Birthplace Trust

Among the Stratford newbies were Mark Rylance and Lesley Sharp. “We all played extensions of Ariel in the Tempest,” she recalls. It was, she adds, an unusually warm-hearted company. “If any of us meet, although it was quite a long time ago, you immediately feel that same closeness. How lucky was I.”

Simon has spent much of this century on screen. “As well as ‘black actor’, I don’t like it when people say you’re a ‘theatre actor’ or a ‘TV actor’. They all have a different discipline. I did get concerned about being known as a ‘theatre actor’, so I decided to take a break and do some TV.” It was Blake’s 7, in which she played Dayna, that first made her name in the early 1980s and she returned to primetime in series such as Lewis, Merlin and Death in Paradise. “Then I missed the old theatre muscles – and out of the blue came this offer.”

So what might we expect from her Cleopatra? Simon has a rare gift for stillness. As Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1984, she often stood apart from the banter, and a few years later she brought Nicholas Hytner’s RSC production of Measure for Measure to a devastating close. As the novice nun Isabella – who had been deceived, assaulted, humiliated – an unforeseen marriage proposal from Roger Allam’s duke was the final straw. She simply stared at him, before walking off into, you hoped, a world elsewhere.

Elsewhere, she’s all fire. She won awards in 1990 as the disturbed heroine of After the Fall – Arthur Miller based the character on his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. The reviews were great but Simon didn’t read them. “I got to a point where there is no harder, sterner, fiercer critic than myself,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a harsher critic, to be honest.” Can she look back on performances with satisfaction? “I never quite think like that. I think, ‘Actually, that worked.’” She pauses. “That’s as far as it goes.”

I ask what enjoyment she takes from her work, and am relieved when she guffaws. “I make it sound like torture! I’ve got more pleasure from it as I’ve got older, strangely enough. I used to be so angst-ridden.” So where is the pleasure in acting? “I like pursuing the truth and the exploration of human nature – that’s what I really love.”


David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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