An interview with Samantha Womack By Matt Wolf
Samantha Womack has long been a familiar and much-admired presence on TV, but the actress currently touring the country in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wants to make one point clear: the stage, she feels, is her natural home.
“The theatre feels to me kinder,” Womack was saying one recent afternoon, speaking from her north London perch situated not far from where the director Michael Fentiman’s theatricalisation of the time-honoured CS Lewis novel has been in rehearsal; this production is itself based upon Sally Cookson’s acclaimed stage adaptation that premiered in Leeds late in 2017 before finding a London home two years later at the Bridge Theatre. Its latest iteration is embarked upon a UK and Ireland tour ending in Norwich in April: Womack is playing the villainous White Witch, one of the many figures from the children’s classic that is coming to three-dimensional life onstage.
But wouldn’t Womack, a veteran of EastEnders across many seasons, prefer the routine that comes with a long-running TV show?
“Actually, if I’m really honest, I’ve learned about myself that I like the creative control,” she says by way of elaboration, that comes with theatre-making at its best. “You want to be able to do what you want creatively, and you tend to get that in the theatre. The lights go down,” she says referring to the start of each stage performance, “and it’s you on your own for two hours. I relish that and can find it difficult to hand [the work] over to someone in TV or film who then plucks it up to be used in the editing suite. I find that soul-destroying.”
The material in any medium, though, has to be rewarding, which isn’t ever in doubt here. Womack recalls first engaging with Lewis’s immortal story when she was a girl before sharing it as an adult with her two children. “I remember for the first time encountering [Lewis’s] very vivid and descriptive world and I certainly recall the feeling of alienation of the refugee children” – the four Pevensie siblings at the book’s ever-beating heart. But only in playing the White Witch has she experienced the fascination that comes from reconsidering the tale from the inside out.
“Coming at it this way round is very different. What I’ve been able to realise is that the very same character I read as a child and who my children came to interpret later as someone fearsome and icy is in fact coloured with a neurosis and anxiety and unpredictability that I had never understood from the outside. We’re discovering that place where she’s ugly at the core but that it comes from her own desperate need to survive: the White Witch morphs into whatever the person she’s bullying wants her to be.”
What of the burden of expectation? Womack responds with a wry chuckle as befits someone whose stage CV has encompassed Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Morticia Addams in The Addams Family – to name just two characters about whom theatre audiences might well have preconceptions. “I remember on South Pacific, having not just to take over from [Broadway favourite] Kelli O’Hara but also coming up against the physicality of Mary Martin, who originated the role and was short and small and cartwheeling and there I was being 5’9” trying to find a way to make her move.”
In much the same way with the White Witch, Womack is aware not least at the beginning that “there will be 10 people, each of whom has their own idea how the character should look and move, and sometimes they can work against each other.” Where does that leave her? Womack graciously defers to her colleagues: "I'm actually staggered by the level of artistry in this particular cast. With the director Michael [Fentiman], it's not about 'what are you feeling? stand here'. His main thing is that we are living and breathing together and that we are listening to everyone's breath and that if we don't, it won't succeed. I just love this way of working - the freedom it gives you to perform."
The performer is also enthusiastic about the appeal of touring the country – a vanished pursuit for some actors but one that Womack is quick to embrace. “I’ve spent my life being quite nomadic,” says Womack, who speaks of “growing up on the QEII [cruise liner]” amidst a world of dance troupes and 1940s-style Big Band music. “My great great great grandmother was in PT Barnum’s circus at Madison Square Garden [in New York] and all my family have been musicians or performers in the theatre. If I’m in one place too long, I start to feel quite claustrophobic.” On tour, she says, “each space becomes a different challenge and I love that; I’d get bored otherwise, I think.”
And besides, theatre by rights brings with it one thing you’re unlikely to find on a film or TV set. “Rapturous applause,” says Womack, all but purring down the phone line. “I do still like that.”
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe comes to Edinburgh on the 8 to 12 February. Tickets are on sale here.