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Natalie Walter On … Sweet Dreams

Natalie Walter is an actress whose recent credits include Peter Hall's As You Like It, Dead Funny for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Habeas Corpus at the Donmar and Noises Off for the National Theatre. Her television roles include Babes in the Wood, Harry Enfield and Chums and The Thin Blue Line. She's currently playing Helena in the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opens at the Novello Theatre this week.

For me it was about discovering the journey of Helena, rather than dwelling on how often the play has been done before, or how many actresses have done it in the past. Helena is incredibly insecure at the beginning of the play, having just been dumped by her boyfriend, so I remembered those feelings of what that's like but also came across a problem. Why would anyone chase after a bloke who's dumped her? No one should ever do that – I couldn't believe this character was real, that she'd be that desperate. But it's true, it happens; everyone's got their own insecurities and all of us can sympathise with that.

You can do so many things with Shakespeare, which is great, but it also makes it incredibly complicated to decide which way you're going to go with it. For example, I put several pantomimic elements in early on but now I'm trying to take them out again. It's important that the character remains real, that even after so much time has past since they were written that we can still relate to them. I still find it amazing that after so many years Shakespeare is still able to induce that level of empathy, and that his lines can still reduce an audience to hysterics. But of course he always balances the emotions – there's lots of tragedy in Dream and no shortage of comedy in Hamlet.

The RSC really invests in the ensemble element, which I think shines through in its productions. We spent the first two weeks of rehearsals making puppets and learning mime, we didn't even look at the text. It was a bit like freshers' week at college - I couldn't quite believe I was getting paid! But all that time spent bonding as a company and learning those skills was so important to the atmosphere of the play, and I feel very grateful to be working for a company that has the resources to invest in that kind of process.

I think ours is an incredibly magical production, but that doesn't mean we hold back on the comedy. We have such a laugh doing it, and this will be our last run as an ensemble so it's a very special time. Nearly everyone I talk to that sees it is emotionally drained by the end – it really is like waking up from an amazing dream.

Gregory Doran is undoubtedly one of the best directors I've worked for. He has a way of bringing out the best in everybody, as well as a very clear vision of how the production should be – it's surprising how many directors don't always have that from the start. When we first started rehearsing, we each read another characters' lines, then had to tell the rest of the company what they meant. It was a very effective technique, because it gave us all a clear understanding of the play, and ensured everyone was on the same wavelength from the off.

Although it's based on the template of his 2005 production, Greg was very keen that we each had our own interpretations of our characters. Joe (Dixon) is the only returning cast member, and in fact the only one of us who saw that production, so none of us had preconceptions. People I've spoken to that have seen both say that although the basic template is the same, there are significant differences between the two. It certainly wasn't like taking over a role from another actor – and just by nature of the fact it's a new cast, it's bound to be unique.

- Natalie Walter was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

A Midsummer Night's Dream opens on 21 January at the Novello Theatre (previews from 15 January), for a limited run to 7 February.


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