Lolita Chakrabarti: 'I got bored in between acting jobs so started writing'

The actress and writer on the epic new ”Fanny and Alexander” and her time playing Gertrude to Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet

Lolita Chakrabarti
Lolita Chakrabarti
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Lolita Chakrabarti’s acting credits include John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar, The Great Game at the Tricycle Theatre and, more recently, the Kenneth Branagh production of Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston. She’s also dabbled, rather successfully, in writing penning the hit play Red Velvet which is about Ira Aldridge, the African-American actor who performed as Othello in London in 1833. Now she’s starring in the new production of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic, which is an epic theatre adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film.

Fanny and Alexander is a feast for the eyes, but backstage we are changing wigs, costume and shifting furtniture. It’s an unbelievably ensemble thing, which tells the story of an enormous family through the eyes of the children Fanny and Alexander. It’s hugely theatrical and Stephen Beresford has stayed very loyal to the original story, but it feels very magical. At the end when we take our bow, the audience are always surprised at how many of us there are involved in it.

Part of the reason I did this job is because I am playing two very different parts. Alma is the daughter in law of the matriarch Helena, and the Bishop’s sister Henrietta who is the absolute opposite of Alma. She’s very buttoned up and forthright. She’s a very scary lady. This is such a huge canvas, with so many characters. It’s been great to play someone who is loose and free and happy and then extremely tyrannical.

I started writing because I got bored in between acting jobs. I did a pottery class, which I was terrible at, and I did a course in English romantic poetry, which I loved. I then started writing short stories. I really enjoyed it and started selling them to a charity called InterAct where they send actors into hospitals to read stories to stroke patients. Then I just wondered whether I could write a play. I think I have finally accepted I am now also a writer.

The success of Red Velvet has been beyond my dreams. It had been so hard to get the play on in the first place. I’ve worked a lot with my husband Adrian Lester over the years. We had a theatre company together in our early 20s. He reads everything I write and tells me I’m brilliant, if that’s what I need to hear. But he also gives me notes. Him starring in Red Velvet felt like a natural evolution, he’s such a great actor.

When I played Gertrude to Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet, I hadn’t done a Shakespeare play for 16 years. I had begun to think maybe I’ve done all the Shakespeare I was going to do. Then when this came around I thought: I’ve graduated! I can do the mums and the older parts. I love Shakespeare, and I want to play all of them – Queen Margaret, Cleopatra, Lady M. I could do Macbeth! I might be a bit old and tired for Hamlet though.

Fanny & Alexander runs at the Old Vic until 14 April.