THE RISING STAR OF BRITISH THEATRE ON THE RSC, CAREER, HER DAUGHTER AND THE FUTURE
Interviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Tuesday, January 25, 2011.
It’s three quarters of the way through the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Roundhouse Season in London, and actor Noma Dumezweni feels that she can relax a little. Appearing in three of the Company’s six current productions, the Swaziland-born, Suffolk-raised actor is excited about the next phase of the Season’s tour back at the soon to be relaunched theatres in the company’s Stratford-Upon-Avon base.
After that homecoming – where Ms Dumezweni will reprise her roles as Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, and Calphurnia in Julius Caesar - she will join the rest of the ensemble with a farewell residency of the complete season at New York’s Lincoln Theatre.
I spoke with the actor during that warm and fuzzy end-of-term period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, whilst she was enjoying a meal with friends. A busy restaurant, a bout of illness over the festive period and a crackling mobile connection could not mask her bubbly and exuberant personality.
We began by talking about the Roundhouse Season:
“It is all going really well. This season is amazing (and) I’m very lucky to be doing the plays I am doing and the parts I am doing. Coming up from Stratford you realise it is a different energy as well; London audiences are so attuned and after the first couple of days we realised we had to refine what we are doing - it is just a different form of story telling.”
The actress says she was never daunted by the intense preparation process that sees an ensemble of 44 actors playing 228 roles over six productions (as well as adaptations of A Comedy of Errors (1 February) and Hamlet (26 January) which target younger audiences. Performing in three of the plays she is emphatic in describing how quality rather than quantity inspires and motivates her: “It boils down to participating in a great bit of storytelling. It has been a real pleasure; I am really so lucky. My idea of hell is doing one play for ever; (because) you get stuck and bored; it is not satisfying.”
With the growing anticipation for the New York tour the 40-something Dumezweni knows she will face a new energy in The Big Apple; one certain to be as different to the London vibe. “It is the most extraordinary job and we’ll be finishing the whole gig at Heathrow Airport collecting our baggage.”
Dumezweni – a Xhosa word translated as ‘famous in the world’ - won an Olivier Award in 2006 for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in the Young Vic’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking classic A Raisin in the Sun. She has also appeared in several roles, from provincial arenas to the prestigious National Theatre. With an impressive body of Shakespearian experience that includes Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, Macbeth (on stage and screen) - as well as the aforementioned roles in the current Roundhouse Season - she has had a solid and consistent stage career so far. She also impersonated Grace Mugabe in the controversial Breakfast with Mugabe and TV and radio, drama and comedy all appear on her impressive CV.
Since joining the RSC in 2006, Dumezweni has became one of a privileged group of actors who enjoy the stability, professional development and superb productions which ensemble work usually brings. And she has sharpened her skills with peers who are at the top of their game. Acknowledging the diversity of the RSC ensemble, and the variety of roles she her self has tackled. Dumezweni is not complacent about the quality of roles for actors of African descent in British theatre. “What would be great is if they have me playing the next Cleopatra,” she thinks out loud.
Currently on the last lap of what is - for her - the end of a three-year RSC stint, she chooses a surprisingly non-work related highlight of her time with the company.
“It’s going to sound so soppy but I will say my three and a half year old daughter coming in for rehearsals. The first day we put on our costumes after ten weeks of rehearsals I always bring her in to the theatre so she can see what Mommy is going to wear…everyone is so generous to her and her little spirit.”
Dumezweni caught the acting bug during school holiday acting classes and at the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich. While she may not have attended prestigious acting schools like RADA, but Dumezweni is confident that her skills have flourished and developed even more at the RSC:
“Please God I hope so; if I haven’t I haven’t done my work; after two and a half years I surely would have learned to be a better actor. I enjoy myself a little bit more; I am more confident; I know that I am not as nervous as I was; or the things that one was nervous about before are different things now.”
With family origins in Southern Africa, she lived in various African countries before settling with her sister and mother in England, and she is clearly impressed with the developing genre of work covering the Black experience in Britain, citing several well known writers.
Women’s voices are not as prominent in this field and her optimism about the future for theatre is seasoned with hope that this wave will unveil the work of even more female writers. But this versatile actress is an advocate of hard work and perseverance.
“You have got to hang in there for the long term and (you) will make it eventually. I think as a creative being you have to get out there and do it; you (have) got to think about the long term.”
For her own future she is only looking as far forward as the remainder of the RSC tour ending Stratford and New York?
“I have no idea,” she says. “I will be chasing up my agent in June to see what’s happening… and to see what’s on the table…I like dreaming; hopefully I will have an HBO TV series lined up!”
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Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.