OF all the female roles in Shakespeare’s canon there is none like Rosalind. The lead in As You Like It, she is a fascinating and brilliant combination of mercurial wit and independence.
Full of energy, she manages to run rings round every other character in the play and is barely off stage.
Banished by her uncle the Duke she leaves her life in court and with her cousin Celia journeys into the Forest of Arden.
Disguised as a boy she embraces a different way of living and falls spectacularly in love with Orlando, also banished from the court and also in the forest.
Once there she discovers Orlando's love for her thanks to a series of love letters he has written and then stuck on the trees.
It spurs her into action and she sets about trying to teach him how to woo Rosalind before revealing her true identity.
The play is currently being performed at the National Theatre, directed by Polly Findlay. It hasn’t been staged there for 36 years so the combination of that and the role’s status could have been a terrifying prospect for any actress.
No wonder then that when Rosalie Craig was offered the part by the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris she thought it was a joke.
“I was rehearsing another play at the time and he took me to one side and said how about playing Rosalind instead,” she recalls.
“I couldn’t believe it – I thought he was taking the piss actually,” she laughs. “But he was serious and as soon as I realised that, I knew it was a no brainer.
“I mean, all the great actresses have played Rosalind and she’s a fantastic character so I didn’t hesitate.”
The play she turned down in favour of As You Like It is the much anticipated wonder.land, the Alice in Wonderland inspired musical written by Blur frontman Damian Albarn and which has just opened on the National’s Olivier stage.
Was it a difficult decision then?
“I was really enjoying being part of that but Rosalind trumped it,” she says warmly. “I didn’t want to be too ecstatic because I was leaving Rufus’s production to go to another but it was his idea.
“It was so lovely to have had that moment though and to be thought of to play this role. That’s very special and a lovely position to find yourself in.”
However, once the excitement subsided, Rosalie, who lives in Crystal Palace, admits to having a fair few nerves. Despite her pedigree in musical theatre, most notably having wowed audiences with her incredible performance in Marianne Eliot’s production of The Light Princess at the National two years ago, this she says is by far her biggest role in “straight” theatre.
“The part comes with a lot of history and a lot of baggage,” she says. “I’m most known for the work I’ve done in musical theatre and haven’t done much straight theatre.
“I’ve also never really tackled such a meaty Shakespeare role – Rosalind has a lot to say and is on stage a lot so there was also that to think about.
"However I went into it treating it as a new play. In the end you just try and make the part your own and forget about all those who've gone before
“Besides, the role is also insane,” she adds laughing. “She’s funny, witty and she’s the biggest female role he wrote and during rehearsals it was sometimes tricky to find her."
And Rosalie admits that Rosalind was a harder character to find than she had first thought, not least because of all the different layers to her character.
“She turns on a dime and has a mosaic quality,” she says. “There are so many different sides to her and she turns into one at any given moment.
“She’s also desperately insecure and feeling a bit out of her depth at not being able to control or teach Orlando how to be in love with her.
“It’s her survival coping mechanism to falling in love though and it seems a huge and terrifying thing for her. I didn’t know that side of her at all.
“But trying to do what she did by dressing up as a boy, that’s completely insane – when would anyone ever do that in real life?” she laughs heartily.
The production has been well received and Rosalie says she is loving the audience reaction which she says changes with each performance.
And she is very happy to be back at the National and in her first role there since Light Princess two years ago. In that production she sang and acted whilst being hoisted and manhandled up and down the full width and height of the Lyttelton stage to appear as though she were floating.
She admits it’s a bitter sweet moment being back as there is a certain amount of unfinished business associated with the musical which was written by Samuel Adamson and singer songwriter Tori Amos.
It was a labour of love in that the production took the best part of five years to get to the stage and was postponed for a year before it finally opened.
“Light Princess meant so much to me and when it didn’t set the world alight it was very painful,” says Rosalie.
“You always think it’s going to be the best ever and I wanted it to go on.
“I know Tori [Amos] wanted to go to Broadway with it. I wish I knew why it didn’t. Most people really loved it.
“It was an incredible role though – much like Rosalind in many ways – and initially I thought I’d be really scared but because we’d worked on it for so long, five years in the end, I was just so eager to do it!
“It definitely has a special place in my heart.”
Despite her obvious love of the Light Princess, Rosalind is very much her focus now. That and playing a sheep for the first time.
“Ah yes,” she laughs. “I can’t say I’ve ever done that before. I did think it was a bit bonkers to bring sheep into the production but actually it’s genius.
“The set too just blew us away and when we did the first dress rehearsal and saw the set change for the first time it was amazing, a moment that will stay with me forever.
“That’s what I love about this place – and why it’s so incredible – the attention to detail and the creativity. It’s brilliant and so clever.
“I’m really proud of this production and it’s going really well. It has been a real voyage of discovery and I love being back here. It really is the best place to work and I’m at my most happy when I’m here.”
And when she does have a bit of free time?
“I love wandering round Crystal Palace which is where I live,” she says. “My husband and I have been here for about five years and it’s fantastic and I really hope we can stay here forever.
“We love walking in the Triangle and being part of this amazing community with all its lovely shops. The atmosphere is great and it’s so green.
“It feels like home.”
As You Like It is on at the National Theatre, South Bank until March 5. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call the box office on X. It will be broadcast in cinemas via NT Live on February 25.