Samantha Womack has been a familiar presence on TV for years, but as she tours the country in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – coming to Salford’s Lowry for Christmas, December 8-January 15 – she wants to make it clear that the stage, not the gogglebox, is her natural home.
“The theatre feels to me kinder,” she says. “I’ve learned that I like the creative control. You want to be able to do what you want creatively, and you tend to get that in the theatre. The lights go down and it’s you on your own for two hours.
“I relish that, and can find it difficult to hand over to someone in TV or film who 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 in doubt here. Womack recalls first engaging with Lewis’s story when she was a girl, before sharing it as an adult with her two children.
“I remember encountering Lewis’s very vivid and descriptive world for the first time, and I certainly recall the feeling of alienation of the children” (the four Pevensie siblings at the book’s heart). But only by playing the White Witch has she experienced the fascination that comes from reconsidering the tale from the inside out.
“Coming at it this way is very different. I’ve been able to realise the character I read as a child and who my children came to interpret later as someone fearsome and icy, is in fact coloured with neurosis, anxiety and unpredictability 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 need to survive. The White Witch becomes whatever the person she’s bullying wants her to be.”
But far from being a bully, Womack is relishing the work: "I'm staggered by the level of artistry in this partricular cast,” she says. “The director’s (Michael Fentiman) 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."
She is also enthusiastic about the appeal of this being a touring show: “I’ve spent my life being quite nomadic,” she reveals – speaking of “growing up on the QEII” within a world of dance troupes and 1940s-style Big Band music. “My great great great grandmother was in PT Barnum’s circus in New York and all my family have been theatre musicians or performers. If I’m in one place too long, I start to feel quite claustrophobic. On tour each space becomes a different challenge and I love that; I’d get bored otherwise, I think.”
And theatre does have one thing you’re unlikely to find on a film or TV set: “Rapturous applause,” she laughs. “I do still like that.”
Matt Wolf is London theatre critic of The International New York Times and London theatre editor of The Arts Desk
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe tour opened last night in Leicester. Salford is its only current Northern stop – info and tickets here