Sharon D Clarke brings Moliere into the modern world

Sharon D. Clarke and Ayesha Antoine in rehearsals for A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes. Picture: Mark Douet

Sharon D. Clarke and Ayesha Antoine in rehearsals for A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes. Picture: Mark Douet - Credit: Archant

The Crouch End actress tells Alex Bellotti why she’s happy for the audience to get involved in the Tricycle’s new show, A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes.

As a veteran performer of the much-loved Hackney panto, perhaps it’s no surprise that Sharon D. Clarke relishes audience participation. While it’s one thing gamely playing along to shouts of ‘He’s behind you!’ though, it’s another trying to deal with a chatty audience member during a modern adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe.

“On our second preview, people were saying, ‘Is that person a plant? Are they there every night?’” laughs Clarke. “It’s like, ‘No, they just decided they had something to say and that they were going to say it’.

“And that’s fantastic, because you know that they are with you. When it gets to that point that they’re chatting to you, you know that they are in the story, that they’re listening and that they’re with the characters. We don’t find it off-putting at all – it’s more like we’ve got them, we’ve got them to the point where they have to speak.”

In the Tricycle’s new show, A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes, Moliere’s iconic comedy is brought into a modern world of excess wealth, mega-churches and corruption.

The family of terminally ill multi-millionaire Archibald Organdy (Wil Johnson) becomes suspicious after he is visited by a Deep South faith healer, Archbishop Tardimus Toof (Lucian Msamati), and his wife, Lady Toof (Clarke). Promising to absolve Organdy’s sins and heal his disease, the Archbishop’s flamboyant nature sees him frequently address the audience, but it slowly becomes apparent that there’s more to him than just faith, virtue and snakeskin shoes.

Despite being a modern adaptation, Marcus Gardley’s script still relies on Moliere’s tradition of rhyming verse. For Clarke, this serves only to “heighten the situation even more” and she looks towards works like the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet as examples of how such a mixed style can be effective.

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“That was one of the things I wish we had at school to key me into Shakespeare more. Because what you really got was the emotion of the language; in the stuff I’d seen as a kid, it was all about the language and not the emotion.

“It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, where she goes to the opera and doesn’t understand a word, but the emotions hit her so much that she’s crying. That’s what it should be; it should be accessible to everyone.”

The cast of A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes are no strangers. Clarke, Msamati and Angela Wynter (Mother Organdy) all worked together on the National Theatre’s The Amen Corner in 2013; it was on this show that Clarke won a Best Supporting Actress Oliver Award for her role as Odessa.

“I was really surprised about that,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would notice me – she was such a quiet character! At the moment it feels like a great accolade I can put on my mantelpiece, but the Royal Shakespeare Company hasn’t called, Spielberg hasn’t called. It’s just an accolade you get from the business which says, ‘We’ve seen you and go on girl, keep up the good work’.”

The Crouch End resident will certainly be keeping busy this winter: once again, she is involved in the Hackney panto, while next year will see her starring in the National Theatre production Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Such a diverse schedule, Clarke says, is one of the great joys of being an actor. While known to many for her role as Lola Griffin in the BBC medical drama Holby City, she says that the stage will always remain her first love.

“I’m not going to turn down any wonderful TV jobs that come along, but I am a theatre girl. I love being with an audience, I love the energy exchange that you get in the theatre.

“I love seeing the whites of people’s eyes, when the houselights come up and you can see the audience. I’m not one of these people who asks to turn the lights down, I love seeing the crowd and keeping them as a part of it.”

A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes runs at the Tricycle Theatre until November 14. Visit