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Paapa Essiedu: ‘It’s ridiculous that I have to justify myself, my blackness and my career as an actor’

PUBLISHED: 11:41 05 March 2018 | UPDATED: 17:48 05 March 2018

Hamlet RSC starring Paapa Essiedu. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Hamlet RSC starring Paapa Essiedu. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Manuel Harlan

Paapa Essiedu won the 2016 Ian Charleson Award for his performance in Hamlet. Set in modern day state influenced by Ghana, the acclaimed RSC production is revived at the Hackney Empire. How does it feel to be back playing Shakespeare’s Dane?

How did you get into acting?

I didn’t grow up acting but I ended up doing a school play on a whim when I was sixteen. Before that, I was en route to doing medicine and then took a complete U-turn and joined the National Youth Theatre. From there, I did a production at the Arcola Academy – and was fortunate to be offered a place at Guildhall.

Do you have any memories of Hackney growing up?

I’m from Walthamstow so grew up not far from Hackney. Because my mum taught fashion design we used to get the train to get African materials for her clothes… I used to wait for ages on Mare Street for her to do her shopping. I always remember it as a vibrant place. Full of life, music and smells.

You first played Hamlet in 2016. Does it feel like you never left the role?

It does feel like I left the role! We approached this rehearsal as if it’s a brand-new production; a lot is newly minted, so each scene feels different to the 2016 version, which is slightly terrifying as it forces you to resist laziness and stay fully active. It’s almost like a different Hamlet - one of the reasons I wanted to do it.

Is this the first time you’ll perform at the Hackney Empire? What do you expect?

A vocal crowd, an engaged audience. I saw The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo at the Hackney Empire Studio in 2006, it was probably my first experience of watching a play. But I’d never been into the main theatre until I started rehearsals. It’s one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been in – it has an immediate atmosphere – even without an audience– I cannot wait to perform there.

You’re the first black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC. You’ve been quoted as saying that you find this both “significant and insignificant”. What did you mean by that?

It was a comment on what I think about being asked about being the first black actor to play Hamlet at the RSC. What is the significance of someone asking me that? And what is that symptomatic of? You wouldn’t ask a white actor about their colour. It suggests there is an accepted norm that white actors are destined to play certain roles and that there’s something particularly interesting in anyone who isn’t white and plays these roles - that needs to be challenged. I know we don’t live in some sort of post-racial society - but we do need to call it out when these micro-aggressive questions are permeated in the mainstream media. I think it’s ridiculous that I’m having to justify myself, to justify my blackness and my career as an actor, in a way a white actor wouldn’t have to. The reason I said it was significant is because I guess it’s true, but that is something you need to ask the RSC and not me. As a journalist, you need to ask yourself what you’re chasing by asking that question.

Simon Godwin, Hamlet’s director has said the setting has been re-conceived as a modern state inspired by Ghana. Has your Ghanaian heritage influenced the production?

It hasn’t influenced the way I play Hamlet, but influences from Ghana have come into the way we tell the story. Ghosts for example – in Ghana, people have a more potent connection to the spiritual world, and spirits exist in a more tangible way there than here. Here, we have a kind of scepticism around that world. I think the Ghanaian connection really brings the play to life.

Apart from acting, what else do you enjoy?

Love the theatre! Love films! Love football! (Manchester United) But at the moment my hours are so occupied I’m trying to find more time where I can be quiet. I like working with young people and with the community. I’m from a working-class background, and I know how hard it can be for people from certain backgrounds to do certain things in life, such as becoming an actor. I am passionate about removing obstacles so young people can reach their potential.

What would you do if you were London mayor?

Pump money into the arts. Film, theatre, music, art galleries. I would make everything subsidised because art is the gateway to the soul and feeling we haven’t got access to it is the worst thing.

Tell us about your recent screen work?

I’ve been focussing on screen work, and involved in some projects which I’m really proud of. Kiri recently on Channel 4, written by Jack Thorne is brilliant and told bravely. It tells the story of a young black girl fostered by a white family – and the decision to try and keep her connected to her biological parents. Then a murder takes place, and it’s about the fallout from that. In the autumn, there’s a six-parter called Press, written by Mike Bartlett, which delves into the world of journalism and the trials and tribulations of that. So a fruitful year.

Favourite Shakespeare speech?

The monologue in Richard II where he’s in prison

Favourite Shakespeare character?

Iago.

Lear or Titus?

Lear. He’s more flawed.

Favourite Shakespeare play?

Hamlet

The RSC’s Hamlet runs at the Hackney Empire March 6 – 31. Tickets 020 8985 2424 or hackneyempire.co.uk

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