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Interviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

Jeffery Kissoon is one of those performers whose closely guarded privacy can’t hide a fantastic and well-established career.  His work spans Shakespearean and modern theatre through to television and film drama. Either behind the scenes, directing, or performing on stage, he has paid his dues over a successful four-decade career.  His recent performances in the Talawa/West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Waiting for Godot were well received and we can expect to see him again on the big screen in the just completed independent film Ham and the Piper, directed by Mark Norfolk.

For the next few weeks, Kissoon will be appearing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar at London’s Noël Coward Theatre.  This most famous of  the bard’s political thrillers opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the playwright’s Stratford birthplace in May. But the current version draws parallels with contemporary African politics as part of the World Shakespeare Festival celebrating the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The play was also recently televised for the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season.

When I spoke with him recently he explained why doing Shakespeare in such a high profile production, is not a climax to, but rather a continuation of his first steps into acting and performing.

“The first thing I ever did on stage as a youngster was a reading of Mark Anthony’s ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ lines in the English class, and I ended up in this show saying Othello’s lines and Shylock’s lines as well. Up to today I get the same kind of buzz.  [So] my beginnings are to do with Shakespeare and as I get older I am enjoying it even more, because there is so much to discover.”

With so many interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, this particular rendition directed by Gregory Doran, sets the story of political intrigue and assassination in an unnamed African country, and employs a pan-African ensemble of highly experienced performers. Kissoon in the title role is joined by stage and screen stalwarts such as Paterson Joseph [Brutus], Cyril Nri [Cassius], Ray Fearon [Mark Antony] and Adjoa Andoh [Portia].  Linked with the recent news that Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners drew inspiration from a banned but secretly distributed Collected Works of Shakespeare, Kissoon described his pleasure at participating and what this production tries to achieve.

“I think this is a ground-breaking moment here in British theatre.  We are all highly experienced actors of many, many years [experience] and the young actors’ are beautiful - not just physically - but also in terms of their ability to do this kind work. We don’t have to prove anything anymore - we just want to do it.”

Because he has accumulated the wisdom borne of experience and age Kissoon is well-qualified to talk about the frustrations of Black performers, especially in terms of the support from a diverse Black community, which is not the same now as it was during his formative years in Britain. In modern day Britain those with Caribbean or West African heritage are joined by many others from the North, South and East of the continent.

“Our biggest problem now as Black actors’ in the country is that we are not getting the support we need from our own Black people  who tend not to come to the theatre in their droves.”

He has touched on a frustration often expressed, but with the likes of Bola Agbaje, Roy Williams, Dipo Agboluaje, Kwame Kwei Armah and many others excelling in the theatre as playwrights there doesn’t seem to be any lack of support, and Kissoon concedes that when it comes to the work he chooses quality first, but is not ashamed to emphasise the emotional and cultural connection between the performers and their audience.

“As far as I am concerned I do theatre and I do the theatre for whoever the public is. Theatre gives whoever sits out there a special, unique and live experience; it is never the same from one day to the next. [But] whenever I have had an audience where there have been a lot of Black people in the audience somehow the nuances of who we are is picked up. We all understand each other; when you say something in a particular way the audience identify [and] to have an audience like that listening to people who look like themselves - it’s raw and raucous. Black people have a way - they respond and are an audience who is alive.”

Talking about his recent work in modern classic Waiting for Godot he tells me that the reaction to and perception of any work he performs is: “heightened if the people who are watching it are truly identifying with the people who are performing it onstage.”

The actor discovered drama, acting and performing soon after coming to London from Trinidad with his parents, he got his first break in 1970 and hasn’t looked back. Although he trained and expected to become a drama teacher - and he still tutors and mentors young actors - he has appeared in numerous screen and stage roles ever since.

The Stratford-upon-Avon production included scores of crowd scene extras giving the play an epic quality. Undoubtedly this strengthened an already impressive production which Kissoon describes as having: “a strange, carnival atmosphere at the beginning.” Not that he lacks any confidence that the Noël Coward Theatre version, though on a smaller scale, will be just as dramatic. “With Shakespeare the production will keep you engaged and the actors are brilliant - that’s what is beautiful to see.”

For someone with such extensive experience, and a trip to Russia rounding up the global leg of this year long tour to look forward to, he’s still enthusiastic for the work.

“It is a high profile production - but it is no different from a lot of the other stuff I have done”, he tells me. “What keeps me going is this business of acting; whether I do theatre round the corner in a pub, or for the Royal Shakespeare Company, if it is good, I enjoy it.  I direct a little bit and I put things on in communities and one man shows and I enjoy the magic of theatre, when people enjoy it, I am uplifted.”   

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

Julius Caesar
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2
Until 15 September

Tour dates:
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre 19 – 22 September
Bradford Alhambra Theatre 25 – 29 September
The Lowry, Salford 2 - 6 October
Norwich Theatre Royal 16 – 20 October
New Theatre, Cardiff 23 – 27 October


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