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Karen Fishwick - Juliet, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

For the first time in six years, Karen Fishwick is not in panto. This time last year, the Clarkston raised actress was playing the female title role in the Citizens Theatre's seasonal production of Hansel and Gretel. This year, she's hanging out in Edinburgh, putting her feet up while her fiancée does all the work onstage over at the King's Theatre.

For many performers at this time of year trying to fill their Christmas stocking, such enforced leisure time would be a disaster. After her Christmas present came early, however, Fishwick is making the most of her time out while she can. As was announced last week, come the new year, she will begin rehearsals playing another title role as half of an altogether less cheery onstage duo when she takes the lead in the Royal Shakespeare's new production of Romeo and Juliet.

The company's latest take on Shakespeare's doomed romance will be directed by Erica Whyman, the RSC's deputy artistic director, who in 2016 brought her production of another Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, to the Citz. That production was unique in its casting of local amateur and community actors from each venue's locale as the Mechanicals. It wasn't in Glasgow that Whyman discovered Fishwick, however, but in London, where she was playing one of six riotous choir girls in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.

Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall's stage version of Alan Warner's novel, The Sopranos, had already caused a station when Vicky Featherstone's National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre Newcastle co-production opened at the Traverse Theatre as part of the 20?5 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Fishwick played school swot Kay Clark, who, along with her fellow ingénues and under-age drinkers, embarks on a potty-mouthed big city adventure that will change their lives forever.

Much the same can be said for the show itself, which, following a tour of Scotland, transferred to the National Theatre of Great Britain and then later the West End, picking up an Olivier Award en route. After two years playing Kay in a show that also toured to Melbourne, Galway and Connecticut, Fishwick looks set for another long stint when she starts six weeks of rehearsals as Juliet in January.

“I have no idea what I've let myself in for,” she says. “It's really weird, because I just want to get into the rehearsal room, because I know as soon as I start I'm going to be obsessed with it, but at the moment I'm going through all these different phases of how I feel about it. It's only when I'm on my own daydreaming about what it could be that I start thinking about how unexpected it was. Even the concept of appearing with the RSC wasn't the sort of pathway I ever expected. I went to college rather than drama school, so I thought something like the RSC would be out of reach. I can't wait, though. I'm totally up for the challenge.”

While it's still early days, Whyman's approach to the play looks set to tap into contemporary concerns.

“I think it will be very current,” says Fishwick. “Or maybe just beyond now. The stakes are quite high, and it's set in a world where it feels like things are starting to fall apart. Right now in 201`7 people are saying that, but this is set in a world where they actually are falling apart. There's a phrase Erica used, where she described it as being about a generation of young people who've been failed by their parents.”

In this respect, Fishwick's Juliet is unlikely to turn out a love-sick swooner.

“I hope to show Juliet as a real teenager. Obviously a teenager now has very different concerns to a teenager 400 years ago, but I feel like she's super-brave. I don't think she's weak or soft, and she's not any kind of fluffy vision in a nightdress. I think she's more robust than that. She's this amazing young woman dealing with this incredibly difficult situation in a very adult manner.”

Fishwick grew up in a musical family, and plays trumpet, accordion, piano and guitar. Following this early training, there was an element of performance in everything she did.

“I remember being in the back garden, playing all these games and creating all these crazy worlds, and never ever wanting to stop. It's weird, because part of me was really shy and withdrawn, but even at church, I always wanted to be the altar server because I got to go on a stage and wear a costume.”

Rather than go to a regular drama school, Fishwick studied drama in Motherwell at New College Lanarkshire after seeing a show there.

“It felt like the right fit,” she says.

Given that the acting course Fishwick took looks set to be scrapped at the end of the next academic year along with the College's musical theatre course, such vocational training wouldn't have been open to her now.

“That's a really sore one,” she says. “I'm totally heartbroken about it, because it seems like it's all gone now, and people like me can't take that path or have that opportunity anymore, and that's so sad.”

Fishwick's first professional job was in Catherine Grovenor's award-winning Edinburgh Festival Fringe staging of Gogol's The Overcoat. A season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre saw Fishwick appear in A Chorus of Disapproval, Present Laughter, Lady Windemere's Fan, Present Laughter and The Admirable Crichton. At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, she was able to incorporate her musical skills into A Christmas Carol and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. This continued with a stint in Glasgow Girls, and of course on the great adventure of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.

“That was such an important thing to be part of,” Fishwick says, “and it felt really funny when it ended. I felt really happy with everything we'd accomplished, because up until the first show at the Traverse I don't think we really knew what we had. But it was sad as well, because by that time we all knew each other so well, and saw each other every day, and I think for six or seven weeks afterwards, it still didn't feel like it was finished.”

Fishwick is scheduled to be at the RSC until March 2019, with an itinerary that will also see her appear in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. In July, Romeo and Juliet will be broadcast live in cinemas throughout the UK.

“I don't know how I feel about that,” says Fishwick, “people seeing my ugly crying face on a big screen.”

Beyond such japery, she has more serious hopes for the play.

“I think it's going to reach out to young people who can believe in the play on different levels. On one level it's dealing with this city in chaos, but on another there's this crazy love at first sight thing going on. Both of those things are very real.”

As for her working life beyond Juliet, “I just want to keep playing real people,” she says, using that word again. “Girls who are inbetweeners, which I think is what I am. I want to keep telling stories of ordinary people. I'm pretty exceptionally ordinary, I think.”

Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from April 21 2018. The production will be broadcast live in cinemas across the UK on July 18 2018. A nationwide UK tour is planned for 2019.
www.rsc.org.uk

The Herald, December 21st 2017

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