Charity Wakefield

Charity Wakefield

Interview & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

Hair and Makeup Justine Jenkins

Photographer’s Assistant Paolo Navarino

Charity Wakefield, who most recently made history as the first woman to play Shakespeare at The Globe in an all-female production of EMILIA, joined the Journal for coffee at her favourite Soho spot, Bar Italia,  to discuss sonnets, period dramas and independent cinema.

Tell us about Emilia and your role as Shakespeare?

Emilia is a play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm about the imagined life of 16th century poet Emilia Bassano. We performed it at the Globe last summer, and are now transferring to The Vaudeville in the West End. Emilia was one of the first women to be published in world run predominantly by men. What little we know of her indicates that she was a very early feminist, using pamphlets and other means to educate other women and to bring them together in solidarity. Our play supposes that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; which, if true, suggests that he was infatuated with her and may well have known her intimately, drawing on her talent, intellect and experience when creating his work, perhaps even using her words.

As a 21st-century woman, the themes Emilia wrote about 400 years ago – fighting against male hierarchies, being used for inspiration but not credited for your own work – still feel pertinent to me. At the Globe, audiences connected with her character so viscerally that there was an audible roar of solidarity at the end of each show. I play Shakespeare as a version of him that comes from Emilia’s perspective. He lives in the play as part of her memory and experience. But it’s also my own take on a figure often played romantically. I see him as a trickster and impresario, and I’m interested to explore how different a man he was at home, compared to his public self. 

Will a play centred around Emilia Bassano seem subversive or shocking to some conservative academics? 

What’s shocking is that there are so many real-life female stories that remain untold. Alongside Emilia Bassano our play features Susan Bertie, who fought for equal education for woman; Mary Sidney, who hosted a “paradise for poets” at her country house, was expert at falconry and shooting, had a chemistry lab and invented invisible ink, finished her brothers book of psalms, wrote and published an early translation of Anthony and Cleopatra; and Margaret Clifford, who as well as being a force of nature in court life, set up an almshouse to provide accommodation for impoverished widows. It remained in use until the 1970s due to her clever use of the law in its organisation. Our play is asking why these stories have been buried. Probably because women have been excluded from writing history. We want to shed light on these real life women and encourage people to get writing to share all this delicious historical detail.

You’ve worked on a number of period dramas, from The Halcyon, set in the 1940s, to Wolf Hall and Emilia set in the 16th century. Is there a historical period you’ve particularly enjoyed discovering?

I visited Hampton Court as part of my research for Wolf Hall and I was blown away by the experience of walking around the Tudor buildings. I was surprised at the close quarters everyone kept. The servants would have seen and heard everything that Henry VIII did – all the deals made, all the drama unfolding, the bed-hopping, the death warrants, the art, the culture, the debauchery. Life was tough and everyone was so interconnected, because they relied on each other, rather than technology, for everything. But it was also a time of so much innovation and great artistic and scientific leaps being made. Very exciting, but also terrifying in its own way. 

You once worked in Soho at a cinema… 

When I first moved to London I worked at THE OTHER CINEMA on Rupert Street. It was one of the last little independent cinemas left and it closed, unfortunately, but not after a fight from the people who worked there and loved it so much. I loved that place and it was a perfect introduction to filmmakers’ London. We showed small films and let them run, building up a word of mouth momentum rather than a funded marketed campaign, and we championed documentary before the mainstream: it was the first place to show Buena Vista Club, for example. We’d have all sorts of Soho characters come in and I got to know the area quite well. Fantastic artists, musicians and film makers would tell us about other things going on nearby, and I spent more time in Soho in those years than at home in South London.

Tell us about your upcoming series THE GREAT. 

It’s gonna blow your socks off! It’s a 10 part series for HULU with Elle Fanning playing Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult playing Peter Romanov, the Emperor of Russia. Catherine the Great ousted Peter and ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. Her story is amazing, and I am so glad we have a TV show to explore it all! It’s written by Tony McNamara (The Favourite) and it has a similar feel in terms of its historical irreverence and comedic style. I play Georgina Dymov, Peter’s lover. Other cast members are Gwilym Lee, Phoebe Fox, Douglas Hodge, Adam Godley – a really terrific bunch of actors. I wish I could tell you more, but no spoilers allowed!


Emilia runs at the Vaudeville Theatre from 8 March – 15 June 2019. Bounty Hunters is back on @SkyOne and @NowTV from 13th March.