Monday, 9 March 2015

Big Interview: Sharon D. Clarke

Known for her immense diversity, Sharon D. Clarke is one of theatre’s most respected performers. She is currently playing the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the Rose Theatre Kingston.

Sharon’s West End credits include playing General Cartwright in Guys and Dolls, Joanne in Rent, Miss Sherman in Fame, Rafiki in The Lion King, Matron Mama Morton in Chicago, Mama Winter in Mama I Want to Sing and Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray. 

She famously created the role of Killer Queen in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre as well as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost the Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre, and for both roles she was nominated for Olivier Awards. Last year Sharon won her first Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Amen Corner at the National Theatre.

Just a few of Sharon’s further theatre credits include: Porgy and Bess (Regents Park Open Air), Mother Goose, Blues in the Night and Vagina Monologues (all Hackney Empire), Once On This Island (Nottingham Playhouse), Lift Off (Curve), Stepping Out (Albery), Once on this Island (Olivier nomination/Birmingham Rep) and Little Shop of Horrors (Leicester Haymarket). 

As well as playing Lola Griffin in Holby City, Sharon’s screen credits include: You, Me &Them II, Death in Paradise, New Tricks, Psychobitches, The Shadow Line, Casualty, Boo!, The Crust, Waking the Dead, Stop, Look, Listen, The Singing Detective, Sugarhouse, Secret Society and Beautiful People.

I recently spoke to Sharon about taking on her first Shakespeare, the diversity of her career, which role she always had her eye on, winning her first Olivier Award and her dream of working with Quincy Jones…

You constantly surprise people by playing completely different roles. What was it that drew you to Sally Cookson's production of Romeo and Juliet?
It’s my first Shakespeare – my first legitimate Shakespeare! I did some Shakespeare workshops at Battersea Arts Centre in my early twenties, but I’ve never been asked to do a Shakespeare! So that was a big, big draw and the Nurse is such a fantastic role that everyone talks about so I was so pleased to be able to do it.

Sally’s reputation is amazing; her work is always so creative and has such visual flair. Can people expect something a little different from this production?
It is definitely different – Sally has brought a contemporary feel to it. She’s taken out some dialogue to do some visual storytelling so it’s not so wordy… and it’s not sixteen hours long [laughs]. We want to get people in the theatre, emotionally hooked and then out in time to get to the bar and catch their train home. The use of music in the show – the music is done by Benji Bower – is very filmic and quite melancholy, it really draws you in. I loved watching it all coming together. It’s not your ‘usual’ kind of music. 

Sharon in Romeo and Juliet / Photo Credit: Mark Douet

How were rehearsals?
I have been saying to people that this is a production I would like to see! I’ve seen a few productions of Romeo and Juliet and sometimes I’ve been a bit bored or it has gone on too long or been far too wordy and you don’t know what’s happening, but during rehearsals I was sitting there watching some of the runs and thinking, ‘I would really like to see this!’ [laughs] It’s a good place to be!

What have your fellow cast members been like to work with?
The cast is brilliant. It’s a weird one for me; because I’ve been knocking around for a bit it’s very unusual that I go into a rehearsal room not knowing anybody. I would say that this is the first time in probably about fifteen/twenty years that I don’t know a soul. It has actually been really refreshing and taken me back to those early days when you’ve just started out and are walking around like, ‘I don’t know anybody and feel a bit shy’ [laughs]. Everyone is absolutely lovely and completely behind the piece. We’re just having so much fun! I’m very privileged to be in amongst these glorious people. 

The Rose is a new venue for you, how are you finding it?
It is, I’ve never played this theatre before so it’s another whole new thing for me! Being in a new space with people I’ve never worked with before and seeing how everything all fits together is interesting. The Rose obviously has an absolutely fantastic reputation!

Sharon as Killer Queen
You really have done everything throughout your career from classic musicals to rock musicals to new work and prestigious plays… is that variety something you have purposely searched for? Or has it just worked out this way?
It just seems to have worked out that way. To be honest, I like what I do to be diverse; I like it to challenge me and stretch me and take me into new ventures. When did I start? ’84 – and to be doing my first legitimate Shakespeare only now all these years on is a fantastic thing to be able to say. I like to keep it fresh – I did opera last year and now I’m doing Shakespeare this year. I count myself very lucky and very blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had. Also, the singing – to go away from theatre and do stuff with Nomad and then Friday Night is Music Night and all those kinds of things. I do look at my career and when I think of myself starting out as a fifteen year old I would wonder what I would be doing in the year 2000… and I have kind of completely surpassed anything I thought I would be doing at that point. For that I’m really proud of myself. I have been helped along the way by some very fantastic people who have been brilliant and have trusted me with such great opportunities. 

Do any particular shows stand out for you?
Rock You, before playing Killer Queen I had never originated a role in a new show. I had taken over in Lion King and stuff like that, but I suppose I wanted someone to trust me enough to originate a role in the West End… and to get that as a role to originate… I mean Killer Queen is just so phenomenal [laughs]! I just loved her! I had never played anything like that, often people seemed to get me to play quite warm, motherly characters but she was just queen bitch from hell and I absolutely loved it [laughs]! To have that kind of diversity is something I am very, very thankful for. 

Not so long ago you won your first Olivier Award. It was so special to see your mum there with you, what is it like to look back at that evening now?
I have to say, my Olivier is sitting on top of the piano at home and every time I go past it I still go, ‘I can’t believe it… I actually came home with one of those bad babies!’ It was my fourth nomination and I had been nominated for musicals before, so to actually win an Olivier for a play was just above and beyond. I still can’t get over it! I’m just like, ‘wow, that actually happened!’ and I’m so pleased my mum was there. My dad was there when I went for my first nomination, and after my third nomination my mum said that if I was nominated again she didn’t know if she would be around. So the fact that she was able to partake in that and see that joy and see that recognition from my peers was such a joyous moment. 

Do you remember much about what actually happened when they announced your name?
Well… I felt really, really bad afterwards because I sat there and I just remember them saying my name and then I don’t remember anything more! I don’t know how I got to the stage, I don’t know what I said – I do not remember anything! I realised when I got back to my seat and was watching everyone else that I did not look at my mum or Susie (McKenna, Sharon’s partner) or give them a kiss or anything! Everyone else was leaning over to their partners and their loved ones to given them kisses, but I didn’t do any of that! I just literally leapt out of my seat and was on the stage! So when I realised I went, ‘Oh no, that was a moment we were supposed to share!’ [laughs] I was selfish but so overjoyed that I just leapt! 

Sharon with her Olivier Award

So you’ve ticked off opera, you’re ticking off Shakespeare at the moment… is there anything else you want to tick off over the next few years? Or do you prefer to stay open minded and see what pops up?
I’ve never really had a list to tick off and I’m not one of these people who has a burning ambition to do certain things. Luckily enough my career has taken me where it has taken me, and I’ve never had a problem with that. I suppose the only thing… when I was younger I really wanted to do Dreamgirls, but that didn’t happen and now I’m too old to play Effie and that’s fine… I mean if someone wants to do a concert version I’m quite happy to sing it!

Where do I buy my ticket?!
[laughs] A great ambition that I do have actually is to work with Quincy Jones. You’ve got to put it out there! I would love to do something like record an album or do some studio work with Quincy Jones and as for the rest of my career, if it’s going to tick along like it has so far I have absolutely no problems with that! Whatever people want to throw at me, as eclectic as it is, as diverse as it is, wherever it is – in whatever country – I’m quite happy. I’ve been lucky so far and long may that continue! 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Romeo and Juliet runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until Sat 21st March 2015.

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