Actor Chipo Chung tells The Stage about her first job playing Ophelia in Hamlet at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre
My first professional gig was playing Ophelia in Hamlet at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre. I came to England to do Shakespeare. I had spent a summer being rejected and I wasn’t sure why. It may have been that my ‘exotic’ looks were too specific, or that, as an immigrant, I lacked the confidence of an insider.
I am always grateful to Patrick Sanford for taking the risk on casting me. I read simply for him and he took me for my talent. The actor playing Laertes was very ‘method’. Confounded by the reality of the family, he spluttered in rehearsal: “Are we going to talk about this? I mean, is she adopted?” Patrick tutted impatiently: “No. It’s theatre. We’re colour-blind.” John Woodvine played my father. Steve Noonan (my Hamlet) gave me his box set of the [BBC TV drama] Edge of Darkness, which made John a legend to me. I loved the equality of the rehearsal room.
Patrick was an old-school British director. He knew his job was to create space for actors to play and left it to us to bring the goods. I set about my work the way I had at drama school: week one: try your best; week two: feel shit; week three: have a wild breakthrough; week four: consolidate; week five: fly.
Looking back, I’m not sure my Ophelia was all that, even with all the work I had done studying psychological disorders. I felt singular and incongruous on that stage.
In my next job I was again cast colour-blind as the daughter of Michael Byrne in the Mayor of Zalamea – Gemma Bodinetz’s first show at the Liverpool Everyman. The costumes held us in that Spanish golden age more appropriately, and I wasn’t the lone person of colour: Paul Bhattacharjee played my love interest.
We now understand that to pretend to be colour-blind is a way of shying away from racism. Today the talk is of ‘colour-courageous casting’. In life, I agree: we are not blind to colour. Diversity means embracing what makes people different. But I’m grateful to the last generation of directors, who may not have got it right, but were courageous in giving different people a way in, to share what has no colour: a love for language, poetry and words.
Theatre includes: Dido Queen of Carthage (Royal Shakespeare Company), Julius Caesar (Sheffield Crucible), The Haunting of Hill House (Liverpool Playhouse)
TV includes: Chimerica (Channel 4), Into the Badlands (AMC), A.D. The Bible Continues (Netflix), Thirteen (BBC), Doctor Who (BBC)
Agent: Kat Oliver, Conway van Gelder Grant