The last time Karen Fishwick appeared in these pages, she was about to start rehearsing with the Royal Shakespeare Company for Erica Whyman’s new production of Romeo and Juliet. That was towards the end of 2017, and Fishwick was not long off the West End run of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Lee Hall’s National Theatre of Scotland adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, The Sopranos. Vicky Featherstone’s production featured Fishwick as part of a six-strong ensemble playing a potty-mouthed teenage choir from Oban who run riot in Edinburgh.
By that stage the show had already won an Olivier award after wowing Edinburgh, London and pretty much the whole of the UK in a non-stop dramatic whirlwind of adolescent euphoria. Being cast as Juliet so shortly after all this barely allowed Fishwick pause for breath. Fourteen months on, however, the Clarkston-sired actress has played Stratford and toured the country in a show that saw her singled out in reviews as being ‘an extremely winning Juliet’, a ‘serious delight’ and ‘darting and passionate’. Fishwick was also described as someone who ‘endows Juliet with a compassion beyond her years, while maintaining the contrite naivety of the dutiful daughter’.
All of this should be in evidence when the RSC arrive in Glasgow next week for the final dates of the tour, which will also see Fishwick ending her tenure with the company with what is effectively a homecoming gig.
“I’m literally so excited,” says Fishwick. “I remember when the tour was announced, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen or not, but I’m just really pleased people in Glasgow will get to see the show. Obviously, lots of the cast aren’t from there, so I can’t wait for them to see it. Also, there’ll be two groups of schoolkids onstage, so there’ll be other Glasgow accents up there as well.”
The latter initiative highlights the focus of Whyman’s production on the play’s youthful heart. While this has always been there, judging by some of the show’s production shots, it also possesses a streetwise contemporary kick which may irk the purists.
“I must’ve done the show more than a hundred times now,” says Fishwick, “but every night I’m still aware that there’s going to be hardcore Shakespeare people out there, but that there’ll also be others who’ve not seen a Shakespeare play in their lives.”
With such contrary priorities in mind, Fishwick’s approach to Juliet has been about empowering her character in a way that has left its mark.
“She’s quite impatient,” Fishwick says of Juliet. “A review described her as bossy, which I got really annoyed about for five minutes, but then I thought about it and, yeah, I’ll take that. She thinks about things more than I do, but you have to remember as well that she’s also heir to the Capulet inheritance. Something we discussed in rehearsals is how she’s a king. She’s a thirteen-year-old girl, but by the end of the play she’s a king.”
The last year has been an adventure for Fishwick on both a personal and professional level. She describes her time at Stratford as “One of the best summers of my life.”
Being part of a company with the word ‘Royal’ in its title also opened the door to what Fishwick calls “crazy” opportunities. One minute she was performing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet at the House of Lords, the next she found herself as part of an RSC delegation at Prince Charles’ 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace.
“I was standing there with this glass of pink lemonade wondering why I was there,” says a still incredulous-sounding Fishwick, who sounds more at home talking about some of the outreach work she did with the company.
“We were going out to all these schools in Stratford talking to the kids about Shakespeare, and they were just buzzing off it.”
This is something Fishwick can relate to from her own school days.
“I think what I’ve learnt on this job is to trust words a bit more,” she says. “My background is so much more about singing or playing an instrument onstage, and I failed English at school, even though I got straight A’s in everything else. So when I landed this job, and words are the only thing to get you through it, that’s been an enormous challenge, but an amazing one.”
Fishwick’s learning curve has also had its less glamorous, if just as instructive moments.
“We did a matinee in Blackpool, and there was a man in the audience eating a packed lunch. If you can do a soliloquy in front of that, you can do anything.”
The result of all this is “an epic lift of confidence. It took me a few weeks before realising I had to step things up a bit, then someone in the company said to me, you’re a leading lady now, you need to bring that into the room.”
Taking this on board doesn’t appear to have turned Fishwick into a diva in any way. Far from it, in fact, as she goes off on a conversational tangent to gush with admiration about Olivia Coleman’s recent Oscar win and the speech that accompanied it. The latter was delivered with a wit and a humility that set the perfect example for actresses of Fishwick’s generation.
“It was the best thing ever,” says Fishwick. “To see someone like Olivia Coleman winning an Oscar and being true to herself was amazing. You can do all this without worrying about who you are, how you look or how you are on Instagram and Twitter. The most important thing is to just be yourself.”
Beyond Romeo and Juliet, Fishwick plans to stay in London for a while. She’s already been cast in another stage play, which has yet to be announced, so she can’t talk about it yet. All she can say is that “it’s the complete opposite to this. It’s a short job, and it’s brand new writing, so it’ll be quite a difference from speaking 400 year-old words to speaking something brand new.”
Either way, Fishwick recognises some of the responsibilities that go with the job, particularly when playing Romeo and Juliet to teenage audiences.
“It’s about having faith in yourself,” she says. “There’s been some nights when I’ve not felt like going out and doing it, but then I think about all these other young women out there, and I know I have to show them that any band geek like me can do this, and I go out there with pride.”
Romeo and Juliet, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 19-23.
The Herald, March 12th 2019