Much mystery surrounds the legend that is Shakespeare. We don’t know much about his early life, how he began his career in the theatre, or even whether some of his most iconic creations are really his work at all.
The shadow of his status makes him more myth than man. But maybe that’s part of his appeal. That shroud of secrecy lends itself well to his legacy.
With only five years having passed since her professional stage début at the Liverpool Everyman, Irish actress Emily Taaffe has since taken the acting world by storm. She has performed as Irina in Three Sisters at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, as Daphne in the National Theatre’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation and as Abigail in The Crucible at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. But treading the boards as three of the Bard’s lead characters in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shipwrecked Trilogy, she thinks, will be the most challenging of all.
It all began at the age of 13 when Taaffe joined her local youth theatre. She went on to study drama and theatre at Trinity College Dublin. Her involvement with her university’s drama society, Players, encouraged her to firmly set her sights on an acting career, and she had soon secured a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
“I applied to [postgraduate] drama school and was lucky enough to get in,” she smiles. “I’m really glad I chose to go to LAMDA. I had a lot of instincts and quite a bit of experience from being at Trinity. What was nice about [TCD] was that I worked on all the aspects of theatre: I’d done stage management, as well as a bit of writing and directing, so I’d seen how everything worked. But LAMDA gave me technique, I would say, and the tools to be able to approach different parts. It kind of broadened my range in that way.”
Taaffe is now starring as Luciana in The Comedy of Errors, Miranda in The Tempest and Viola in Twelfth Night, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shipwrecked Trilogy at the Roundhouse Theatre. She laughs at the suggestion that there may be a well-kept secret to landing such amazing roles. “I think I’ve been very lucky in the parts that I’ve got. I’ve tried to work as hard as I can and I’m always prepared. You never know when you’re going to get a good audition. I think it’s your job to go in as well prepared as you can, because if you don’t get the job, at least you know you’ve tried your best and you’ve done as much as you can. There could be so many mitigating factors as to whether or not you get a job, so at least give yourself the best odds.”
Her three characters each have their own personal appeal for Taaffe. “Luciana doesn’t want to push her own interests. She’s always worried about other people. So what takes her by surprise is falling in love with, as she thinks, the wrong man – her brother-in-law – and it gives her a moral dilemma. Also, she’s quite prim and proper and that’s always fun to play,” she reveals. “With Miranda, it’s a fascinating idea to play someone who hasn’t lived in the world as we know it – she’s never been culturally influenced like we have. Her relationship with [both] her father and Caliban was a really interesting starting point. I think she feels very conflicted between being loyal to her father, but at the same time missing Caliban. Then she starts to rebel. Playing that was great: wondering where that comes from, and how suddenly someone can just go from being very obedient to finding her own voice and her own desires, and following them through. Finally, there’s Viola, who is – for me – the most fascinating. She decides she’s going to disguise herself as a boy, so I had the challenge of playing somebody who’s playing somebody else. It was also interesting for me to think about the reasons why she chooses to keep that pretense [about her gender] up all the way through the play. They’re three very different characters, but they’re all great girls.”
Taaffe first auditioned for director David Farr to get the role of Viola, before meeting Comedy of Errors director Amir Nizar Zuabi to be seen for Luciana, followed by meeting them both for the Trilogy. The most difficult part about bringing each character to life was doing them all at once, the actress says. “I’d never done that before. Normally, when you’re rehearsing a play, you get to focus so completely on one character and one world that you can really immerse yourself in it, whereas we didn’t have that luxury with our three plays. I could have been rehearsing Twelfth Night in the morning and then Comedy of Errors in the afternoon, or a bit of Comedy and then some Tempest. Having to learn to switch between them was quite difficult, because like I said they’re very different. [The entire company] works hard though and we’re all in it together. There’s a great ensemble feel because everybody’s having a very similar experience; we can all support each other.”
Having never performed Shakespeare in front of a live audience before, Taaffe’s priority was to not be daunted by the Bard’s reputation. “I’m just trying to make it sound fresh and natural, sort of like it’s just coming from me rather than from something that’s been learned off.” Exactly how pressured does she feel, acting in some of the most renowned plays ever written, with all the audience’s expectation, particularly during the World Shakespeare Festival?
“We began the show in Stratford [where Shakespeare was from],” says Taaffe, “and initially I was really intimidated. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. It’s the Royal Shakespeare Company. You look at the women who’ve played these parts before and you pale a bit, because you just think, ‘Oh my God, how have I sneaked in here?’ That’s really when you sit back and think about it, though, or when you’re talking to your friends, and suddenly you look up and see the RSC’s logo. But, actually, when you’re doing it – the show is a great company of 18 people – it’s just like doing any other play. You’re just always trying to do your best to tell the story and hopefully the audience is enjoying it. That’s really all you can do: try and do justice to the text, and be in [the zone] every night. I think that’s the challenge no matter where you’re doing a play; that’s always the aim.”
She remarks that while the plays may be centuries old, the characters’ emotions are timeless. Her favourite line of her character Viola’s is when she is confessing her true feelings for Duke Orsino, while still dressed as a man:
She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, / Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy, / She sat like patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
“That bit’s just so beautiful,” grins Taaffe. “She’s concealing [herself] and at the same time telling him that she’s totally in love with him.”
Taaffe has several other Shakespearean characters in mind that she’d love to tackle one day, namely Rosalind in As You Like It, Goneril or Regan in King Lear, and Lady Macbeth. “I’d really love to do Juliet too, before I get too old! Although the parts for women in Shakespeare are fewer and they might not necessarily always have as many lines, I think they’re incredibly powerful characters and brilliant to play, because they’re so complex – which, when you consider how long ago they were written, is really amazing.”
The actress says one of the best aspects about working in the theatre is the fact that she gets to collaborate with a team. “The designers, the director, the other cast members and stage management [all come together] to create a show,” she declares. “I just absolutely love this world, so I’d be delighted to carry on doing great theatre. I’ll mix in some film and television [down the line]; hopefully, I’ll just keep doing interesting and good work. That’s my aim.”
The best advice Taaffe can offer any aspiring actors is to not compare themselves to others and to love what they do. “Remember, everybody’s experience and journey is different, so do what interests you.” She also points out that your passion will shine through during a performance. “Enjoy acting, it’s a great job, and I think if you’re enjoying yourself on stage, it makes it a lot easier for the audience to enjoy themselves. Personally, I really notice when I’m watching a show if someone’s having a good time. So if you work hard and have fun, hopefully a little piece of luck will fall into your lap.”
You can see Emily Taaffe perform in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s What Country Friends Is This? Shipwrecked Trilogy (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest) at the Roundhouse Theatre, London, until July 5. The shows will then return to Stratford until October 7. Tickets are available on the Roundhouse website.
What do you think of Taaffe’s journey? Are you going to any of her performances? Comment below!