One of the standout actors in the all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse, Jade Anouka’s star has continued to rise. She tells Bridget Minamore about how those plays changed the industry, writing her first one-woman show and the role she wants before she’s ‘not young anymore’
It certainly wasn’t an interest at school. “Come on, it was boring. I didn’t like it,” she says, smiling. At drama school they never put on a full Shakespeare production, only “bits”, she says, and sighs. “If it’s taught wrong, it’s hard. You have to see it done well, so it’s only when I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company that I fell in love with it.”
Her debut at the RSC was in The Penelopiad in 2007, followed by small parts in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. “It was like an extension of training, I think everyone should do it,” she says. “I went initially to do one show, then the following year I went back and did a proper season. It made me love Shakespeare. Then, working with Phyllida – I could love Shakespeare even more, because it felt like it was for me.”
Anouka is talking about director Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse – Julius Caesar in 2012, Henry IV two years later and The Tempest in 2016 – set in a women’s prison with an all-female cast. Alongside veterans including Harriet Walter, Anouka was repeatedly picked out as a standout in a strong cast.
In Julius Caesar she initially played Calpurnia, Metellus Cimber and Pindarus – for which she won the first of two commendations at the Ian Charleson Awards, which honour classical performances by actors under 30. She was a thrilling Hotspur in Henry IV, whom she modelled on Olympic boxing gold medallist Nicola Adams. In 2016, the plays were remounted together by the Donmar in a pop-up venue in King’s Cross, and in addition to Hotspur she played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar – taking over the role from Cush Jumbo: “I got bumped up. Thanks Cush. She was doing [US TV series] The Good Wife” – and a poetic Ariel in The Tempest.
The Observer picked out Anouka in its review of the remounted trilogy, saying she “crackles across all three productions: a startling, heart-catchingly young Mark Antony; a Hotspur springing around the stage as if she had helium in her heels; an Ariel who sizzles as she beatboxes”.
Today, the productions – which also transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York – are spoken about reverentially, but Anouka remembers that the initial reaction to an all-female cast taking on Shakespeare was not always so positive. “By the time we did the trilogy at King’s Cross three and a half years later, people were like: ‘We’re down with this.’ But for the most part? At first, people were taken aback.” She adds: “It just goes to show.”
Did she feel that from the audience? “We were prepared for it. We were like: ‘We don’t know how this is going to work out, we’re stepping off a precipice, but we think we need to do this, we think it’s important.’ There was a real camaraderie between us because we didn’t know where we were going, and it felt unknown.”
She says the ultimate success of the show was testament to the faith shown by producer and then Donmar executive director Kate Pakenham and director Lloyd. “Even though there were mixed responses to the first show, they went: ‘No, we’re going to do another one, and another one.’ And thank goodness they didn’t stop after the first one. The Shakespeare trilogy has been part of my life for seven years. Who knew?”
The all-female casting of the trilogy “was a massive deal for me”, she says, “but it’s part of a sea change. It was such a big thing from such a major theatre, it really has helped. I’ve seen a massive shift, especially with Shakespeare”. As an example of the way the industry has evolved, Anouka cites Emilia, the Shakespeare’s Globe production – with an all-female cast – about the woman who may have been the ‘Dark Lady’ from Shakespeare’s sonnets. Its sold-out run has lead to an upcoming West End transfer.
“That’s a great example of going: ‘Look, here are Shakespeare’s plays, here is the thing we are going to be studying forever, let’s find those hidden women, those hidden stories.’ We found it one way, and Emilia is finding it in another way.” Anouka frowns. “I didn’t get to see it, because I was up in Manchester doing Queen Margaret, which was another unearthing of a Shakespeare character, from the woman’s point of view.”
In Queen Margaret, playwright Jeanie O’Hare took the character’s lines from across four of Shakespeare’s history plays and created a new work about the Wars of the Roses from her point of view. It turned out the character has more to say than any other woman in Shakespeare.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was on the tills at Boots in Bluewater when I was about 16. It was a Christmas job. Everyone I knew got Boots toiletry packs for Christmas because I had a discount.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Golden Boy at the Greenwich Theatre in 2003. It was off a ‘search for a star’ thing my dad saw in the local paper. I went and it had a week-long workshop at Greenwich with about 20 of us. A few of us were chosen to be part of the musical, which has only ever been done in England when Sammy Davis Jr played the lead. Jason Pennycooke, who is now in Hamilton, played the lead, and he was brilliant. Sally Ann Triplett was in the cast too.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How to do tax. I hate it. When I was at drama school, why wasn’t there a self-assessment day? I was lost starting out. It’s not easy.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Do I have to pick one? My grandma. She wrote songs, she was really creative. She was a massive inspiration – we’d put on shows and perform her poems to her. Maya Angelou, who I adore; I love how she uses her words to express important things. And Sophie Okonedo. She does amazing stuff and somehow balances TV, theatre, film. I saw her in Antony and Cleopatra, and I was captivated.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Try to learn it, but if you can’t, what’s more important is to know what you’re saying. What are you actually trying to achieve with the words? Everyone can learn lines.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I love drawing and I applied to university for Computer Aided Design. Although when I was little I did tell my mum I wanted to design the sets on Miss World.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always need to have a cup of water at every exit when I’m on stage. I don’t drink it, but I just need to know it’s there.
Bringing female characters to the forefront of productions, as well as gender-swapping roles, is a running theme throughout Anouka’s career, particularly on stage.
Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef, a solo performance about a woman who goes from head chef to convicted inmate running a prison kitchen, was an Edinburgh hit that won a Fringe First in 2014. Two years later, Anouka played the traditionally male role Wagner in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus, opposite Game of Thrones star Kit Harington in the West End.
She has also played more traditional Shakespearean roles for women including Ophelia – for which she won her second Ian Charleson Award commendation – and Juliet, both at the Globe.
This year marks the release of Fisherman’s Friends, a British film in which Anouka plays someone who happens to be male in real life. “I play the head of Island Records, which is hilarious because it’s based on a real man. We had to ask him, are you okay being played by this woman? And he was down with it. The director was like: ‘Look, it’s about 10 men being managed by a man, so in this story, that guy doesn’t need to be a man.’ The point is that she runs Island Records, it’s not the point that he was a man. It doesn’t diminish the story, so why not?”
Born in Bexley, Anouka has “always been south east”, and today lives in Camberwell. “I love living in south-east London, it doesn’t feel like you’re always in it. I can see London from the hill, and I go: ‘Oh that’s London over there, and this is my actual life, over here.’ Having that separation is important.”
Growing up, Anouka thought she’d be an athlete, but a house move and “boredom” made her stop running the 800 and 1,500 metres. She loved performing at home and then at school, and found out about drama school. She applied to the National Youth Theatre, attending at the same time as Harington, before going to Guildford School of Acting.
The middle of three children, her parents are from Trinidad and Jamaica, and are supportive of her career in the arts. “They’re good. They’re happy if I’m happy, and if I can pay my rent then that’s a plus.” The 2012 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the National proved “a massive deal” for both her and her family, “one because it was the National Theatre, two, it was set in Trinidad. That was the first time they came and saw me and were like: ‘I like this.’”
Anouka returns to the starring role in Ella Road’s The Phlebotomist, a science-fiction drama first staged at Hampstead Downstairs last April, which will transfer to the main stage next month. Cleverly written and deeply layered, it is an exploration of one couple’s relationship in a world where everyone is given a ‘blood rating’ out of 10, and the resulting social order. “I read it in one sitting, and got back to my agent like: ‘Please, I love this script.’ In a couple of weeks we start rehearsals. I’m really excited. There have been a few tiny tweaks, but it’s basically a remount with a better, bigger production.”
She continues: “There’s something I love about how scarily real it is. Even from the first production until now, we’ve seen how much closer we are to that as a reality.” Of the DNA testing craze, where people can send off samples online to find out where their heritage stems from, Anouka now feels wary. “I haven’t done it, because Ella freaked me out,” she laughs.
Alongside her acting, Anouka is “equally” a poet, with her collection Eggs on Toast published three years ago. While she has performed lyrical pieces on stage before – most notably Chef and a recent work by Misty writer and star Arinze Kene for his Remembrance event at London’s Old Vic – she has never written for the stage herself. Until now.
Directed by Tinuke Craig, her one-woman show Heart comes to London’s Vault Festival for a two-night run in March. “As a poet, you’re doing everything for yourself, you appear to have total control and everyone assumes that everything you do is really truthful. Whereas when you’re acting, everyone assumes that the actor is the least truthful person in the whole piece. This is the first time for me that those two worlds have collided. In some ways the lines are blurred from both sides, because I have written it, so I’ve written it from a place of truth… But that truth is sometimes mine and sometimes not.”
Anouka begins to explain what Heart is about, then pauses. “Well. The blurb, which I wrote ages ago, says: ‘Based on a real journey of the heart, this work-in-progress tells a story for all those who have ever felt other’, which is quite broad.” She laughs again. “It’s about love, whatever that is. Passion, both professionally and relationship-wise. What it feels like when you’re not the norm, when you feel ‘other’. For whatever reason you feel as though society lives there, and you’re separate, you’re sort of to the side. It explores that through a story of a woman’s heart.”
Anouka continues: “It’s so weird, because I’ve always written poetry, but I’ve never written anything long-form. It’s basically all poetry, it’s all lyrical. I can’t really write any other way. I have to write because in acting you often don’t get to say what you want, you don’t necessarily get to do projects that you always wholeheartedly believe in. So poetry gives you a chance to say what you believe is truly important.”
Heart stemmed from her resolution to write a play last year. “I had started writing bits of Heart with this idea that it’s going to become a play. Then at the end of last year, I watched Misty, and I watched Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, in a week. They’re both honest, brilliant, one-person shows in very different styles, that spoke about what was very important to them. I watched them, then the next week I finished the play. They completely inspired me.”
Anouka told Brid Kirby, who works at Vault, about the play. “She said: ‘If you want to come and do it at the festival, there’s space, you can come and do it for one or two nights.’ And suddenly the option was there. It is scary, but that kind of thing just doesn’t happen. It’s often so hard to put on shows, and this opportunity just fell in my lap. So I agreed to it. And then freaked out. I didn’t know that The Phlebotomist was going to come up, and all the other stuff, I thought: ‘Come on, just do it, it’s only two nights.’ But I get scared whenever I’m doing my own words, with poetry. Way more than acting.”
While she has never written for herself before, Anouka is aware of the power she can have as a performer when it comes to the words she says on and off the stage. Last year, she was commissioned to write poems to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, and appeared in the Old Vic’s The Greatest Wealth, in celebration of the NHS. Does she feel like she has a responsibility to speak about politics? “I feel like the entertainment industry has a responsibility. We’re in people’s lives, it’s an amazing way to get people’s stories across. Which is why it’s so dangerous when it’s misrepresented, because people believe it. You always get worried that what you say can be taken out of context. You also worry that when you say something, you have to say it for everyone.”
…her dream role
“I’ve said this before, but I’d love to play Hamlet. There have been a few female Hamlets floating around: Michelle Terry, Maxine Peake. But I’m really conscious of being able to cast myself as ‘young’ while playing it, because I feel, more than Hamlet being a man, it’s about a young person trying to work out love, trying to work out how to mourn. So I need to do it before I’m not young any more.”
She brings up a TEDx talk she gave in Peckham in July. “I said in that: ‘It’s like I have to speak for all women, all black people. But it’s also my experience. Just because I’ve said that, you don’t have to blanket all black women with that thing.’ Sometimes you feel like: if you have the voice, you have the voice for all those women behind and next to you who don’t have a voice. So there is a kind of pressure. But then you’re balancing that with the want to actually say: ‘If I don’t say it, no one’s listening.’” She pauses, thoughtful. “Also, the whole reason I got into acting was not to be a public speaker. People expect you as an actor to be able to articulate your thoughts. The writers are there for that.”
She was recently on screen opposite Sheridan Smith in ITV’s Cleaning Up, a story of City office cleaners trying to make money off their wealthy employers, and plays a DJ in Netflix comedy Turn Up Charlie opposite Idris Elba. She has also appeared in shows including Trauma, Doctor Who and Chewing Gum. She effortlessly makes the transition between screen and stage. On her TV work she says: “I do really like it, it’s such a different thing, it feels like a new thing for me in many ways. But I can’t ever stop doing theatre, they’re just different.”
Around the time of her well-reviewed turn in the Old Vic’s Cover My Tracks in 2017, with musician Charlie Fink, the venue’s artistic director Matthew Warchus described Anouka as a “phenomenon” with a “limitless future ahead of her”.
She is in much demand, and says the lifestyle of being an actor suits her. Partly because she “can still feel like a kid, I’m just playing and pretending on stage” and there’s another reason: “I love the unknowingness of it. I love the fact I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing as of May. That could mean something amazing is coming up. The possibilities are endless, that’s both a low and a high. I like that. I get bored very easily and this life, this crazy life… I like the uncertainty of it, and it suits me immensely.”
Born: Slade Green, London
Training: National Youth Theatre; Guildford School of Acting
• Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre (2012)
• Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy (2012-16)
• Chef, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2014)
• The Stage Award for acting excellence for Chef (2014)
• Ian Charleson award commendations for performances in Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse and Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe
Agent: United Agents