A crisp autumn frost is settling on the forecourt leading to the Barbican Centre. With it’s extensive brutalist architecture, the building itself is a much needed fort against the onslaught of winter. Tucked away in the Barbican Kitchen I am sat with actor Amber James, who in three weeks will be taking to the Barbican stage as Charmian in the RCS’s Antony and Cleopatra. Fresh from a run as Anna in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage she’s looking forward to a few weeks of rest before she takes to the stage again. It feels perfect to be meeting Amber at the Barbican, just a stone’s throw away from Guildhall, the training ground that has helped propel her in the illustrious career that is falling at her feet.
The Barbican Centre, with a capacity reaching over a thousand, will be an impressive highlight for Amber. No wonder she says she’s nervous though you wouldn’t be able to tell, her affable confidence is palpable.
‘It’s great fun playing Charmian, she’s Queen Cleopatra’s second hand woman….she’s very naught, very cheeky- she’s also very quick witted and intelligent.’ Amber begins to tell me about how she views her character in relation to the rest of the text. ‘If you look at a scene through Charmian’s eyes you see a different view… you see how an outsider responds to Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship and Cleopatra’s politics.’ Amber is also conscious of portraying Charmian as ‘someone you can relate too’, someone who defies the paradigms of the class system.
It’s hard to believe she’s only 22, but Amber has a talent far beyond her years; with a glowing CV that would make any recent drama graduate green-eyed. She puts this down to the exceptional training she received at Guildhall. Legendary teachers and practitioners like Patsy Rotenburg and Wyn Jones who ‘were incredibly influential’ and taught her rigorous lessons in owning her own self confidence. She even confesses a personal motto that ‘sometimes you need the right amount and the right kind of fuck it’ to be successful in the industry, a mantra I know I certainly could get behind!
Amber says she wouldn’t have been able to have these abilities had she not trained at drama school. ‘The biggest thing I got from it was it gave me a confidence to walk in to a rehearsal room and have some idea of what I’m doing! I feel that I can try things out and if they don’t work it doesn’t matter.’ However, Amber isn’t glib in acknowledging the esteemed privileges that come hand in hand with professional training, ‘It definitely is a privilege to go, you feel incredibly lucky to get a place.’ She’s quick to mention that drama schools are ‘just one pathway’ she even refers to the countless actors who have inspired her on her journey who haven’t been professionally trained.
Her voice carries with a strong vibrant resonance, I feel like I am sat with the future Shakespearian actress of our generation. She tells me that she ‘just love[s] these worlds’ referring to the settings of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s work, and adores ‘the language’ and ‘the issues’ that they present.
Generous in her responses, I am intrigued to discover more about the rehearsal process.
‘’Iqqie would rather each show felt fresh and new and that we were surprising each other…he left the door open to give us leeway to do that.’ Her colloquial name for director Iqbal Khan proves there is a glowing warmth in the rehearsal room. ‘We did a lot of stuff with music and movement to get into the different worlds…the sensuality of Egypt is totally different compared to the direct-masculine Roman world.’
‘The RSC is a training in itself…it’s knackering’ but Amber has a constant desire to push her performance further. Theatre has allowed Amber to ‘find [her] voice’, she feels that the exclusion of drama and theatre education in schools is ‘tragic’, being able to take risks and discover her own self at school ‘brought [her] out of [her] shell.’ It truly is a shame that this privilege is being lost for so many young people across the UK.
For Amber the gripping part of Shakespeare is how he educates audiences in dealing ‘with massive human emotions, massive morals that have been relevant since time began to now…whether that’s war, duty, love revenge it’s happening now.’
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Amber has sound advice for any aspiring young actors in the making and that is ‘go in knowing your powerful.’ There couldn’t be a truer sentiment to take away from the interview. In light of recent allegations made against big names in the arts and theatre world, this succinct advice is a balm for the gloominess currently looming over our industry.
She also wants to see more ‘support from everybody’ involved in the arts. ‘I think being a woman has it’s massive problems still, where you can often feel like your second best and sometimes you feel a bit dominated by the other sex, it’s very frustrating.’
Amber rightfully has strong opinions on the unfairness in the industry- ‘It’s not just actors, it’s casting directors, agents, producers, directors, there’s amazing female artists and creatives that aren’t given enough praise. I think a 50/50 gender split is incredibly important and exciting to give us that kind of openness in the industry that we need.’
Headstrong and determined, Amber James will no doubt be undertaking leading classical roles in the future. She says she’d ‘love to do more Shakespeare and Marlowe’ and ‘continue to work at the RSC because for Amber when she performs these texts she feels like she is ‘becoming a better actor.’ Her excitement for opening night is infectious and so it should be, Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra is shaping up to be a real highlight in the Barbican’s Rome MMXVII season.
Interview by Niall Hunt.
Amber James is currently starring in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Anthony and Cleopatra until Saturday 20th January 2018 at the Barbican Theatre. To find out more about the production, visit here…