Following her acclaimed performance as Aunt Maggie in Nine Night, Cecilia Noble is taking on a very different challenge in Bruce Norris’ Downstate at the National Theatre. She talks to Hugh Montgomery about the lack of roles for black actors and discovering her gift for comedy
It comes as something of a shock when sitting down to interview Cecilia Noble, that she appears to be nervous: a faint look of dread ripples across her face. It’s a shock because she could not be a more formidable presence on stage, as anyone who saw her in Natasha Gordon’s hit Nine Night will attest. As the withering, larger-than-life Aunt Maggie – a “Windrush Lady Bracknell”, as Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish described her – she gave a powerhouse comic performance for the ages.
It earned her a best actress nomination at last year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards and, a couple of weeks ago, an Olivier nomination for best supporting actress – for which she surely must be a shoo-in. Beyond the awards attention, the audience reaction throughout the run at the National, and then the transfer to Trafalgar Studios, was testament to her tour de force.
“Sometimes people would shout out things like: ‘Look at Maggie, what does she think?’ or they’d try to have a conversation with you when you’re on stage,” Noble says. “And you’d be like: ‘I can’t answer you because I’m not scripted to.’ ”
But for Noble, there’s no time to bask in the acclaim. She is preparing for an appearance in another new play at the National: Downstate, the latest work from US playwright Bruce Norris, best known for the Pulitzer-prize winning Clybourne Park.
Like that trenchant race-relations drama, Downstate is bound to provoke discussion. A co-production between the NT and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which originally premiered across the Atlantic last autumn, it centres on four convicted paedophiles living in a halfway house after being released from prison. Noble plays their raddled probation officer, Ivy. “She’s one of those women who has seen it all. There’s nothing much that shocks her at this stage in her career. She’s tired, overworked and under a lot of pressure.”
It’s hardly a surprise that Norris has taken on another hot-potato subject, but few are quite as tough as this one. In showing these convicted paedophiles in their mundane day-to-day surroundings, living shadows of lives, the play seeks to humanise them. Does it go as far as suggesting they should be forgiven? “I think Bruce would probably say not,” says Noble. “But for my part I think he’s asking: ‘Who do you extend compassion to?’ And the system we have in place now clearly doesn’t work because paedophiles reoffend and reoffend. So the question is: what do you do with them? Where do they go?”
‘My sister and mum used to call each other if there was a black person on TV’
But where Ivy takes things in her stride, Noble says she’s nothing like as tough as her character. For her, dealing with the issues the play raises has been a real challenge. “I mean, I’m a mum as well. And so when I hear about people like the men in the play, I go: ‘That’s difficult to forgive – it’s difficult to extend compassion to that person.’ Even though I’ve heard the play lots of times, I still wrestle with it. You never get a fixed answer. We don’t know the answer.”
In acting terms, one thing that Noble has most appreciated about the project is the chance to perfect her American accent. “The biggest compliment for me was people in Chicago going: ‘We thought you were American’,” she says. Indeed, the experience has fired her up potentially to seek out more work in the US. “Now my daughter’s older, I probably could.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I had a Saturday job in Woolworths, which I hated.
What was your first theatre job?
Miranda in The Tempest for Cheek by Jowl. It was really inspiring.
What is your next job?
I can’t say anything, but there are a few irons in the fire.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To be confident, and believe in myself a bit. I wasn’t sure of my talent, because nobody said: “Wow, you’re great, do it.” Everyone was like: “Oh my God, no. This is the worst idea possible.”
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Judi Dench. I saw her playing Mother Courage when I was 17 and thought: “That’s what I want to do.”
What is your best advice for auditions?
Preparation is everything – because then you can fly, you don’t have to worry.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Probably a teacher in a primary school, because I like working with kids.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t like anybody to talk to me after the half – the final call, which is 35 minutes before the show starts. I just want to get in the zone.
Noble first knew she wanted to be an actor as a young teenager growing up in Hackney, when she used to conjure up and act out ‘scenarios’ in her bedroom to amuse herself. “I know I sound nuts – I probably am a bit nuts,” she laughs. However, when she told her parents, and the nuns at her Catholic convent school, about her acting ambitions, none of them was exactly thrilled. That was in part because she was shy and no one could imagine her getting up on stage. “They just thought: ‘Go and be a nurse. Go and do something worthwhile,’ ” she says.
Another obstacle was that, as a young black woman, she had so few people to emulate in the industry. “I remember my sister and mum would call each other if there was a black person on TV. I thought I could do it but I could see other people’s point. They were asking: ‘What are you going to do? Where are you going to work?’”
But Noble’s determination saw her through. As a teenager, she took acting classes at the Weekend Arts College in north London, before landing a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Though Nine Night has undoubtedly moved her career on to a whole new level, over three decades Noble has amassed a strong list of stage credits at major venues. Straight out of drama school, she toured with Declan Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl in a double bill of The Tempest and Philoctetes, and it remains one of her most treasured acting experiences. “I thought: ‘Wow, Declan has opened up this world and said Shakespeare’s for everyone,’ and that was very important.’”
She has also enjoyed a fruitful relationship with London’s Royal Court over the years, appearing in work by Caryl Churchill and Debbie Tucker Green. Another role she won particular praise for was as one half of a troubled African-American couple in the provocative two-hander Yellowman, produced at the Liverpool Everyman and Hampstead Theatre in 2004.
‘When I did The Amen Corner, people said: ‘Yeah, she’s funny,’ but I’d played the character completely seriously’
However it is at the National where Noble has perhaps shone most brightly. One of her most acclaimed parts before Nine Night was in Rufus Norris’ 2013 revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. She played Sister Moore, a hilariously holier-than-thou member of a Harlem church congregation.
It was a performance that landed her a first Olivier nomination, and helped her discover a gift for comedy.
“When I did The Amen Corner, people said: ‘Yeah, she’s funny,’ and I thought I’d played her completely seriously. Then I was cast in other comical things and my actor friends kept saying: ‘No, you really are funny,’ and I was like: ‘Maybe I am,’ ” she laughs.
Her part in Nine Night came about via her friendship with Gordon, an actor turned playwright. They got to know each other while playing mother and daughter in Lenny Henry’s 2015 semi-autobiographical BBC drama Danny and the Human Zoo. Gordon was writing what became Nine Night at the time of filming, and told Noble she had a role for her in mind. “She said: ‘You’re too young but I know you could do it.’ ”
Gordon’s decision to write the story of an Anglo-Jamaican family’s ruptures over the course of a traditional nine-night-long Caribbean funeral wake came about because of the lack of decent roles she found coming her way. Noble says she has experienced similar frustrations, as an actor of colour. “You don’t get the same opportunities, it’s just plain. There’s no denying that my counterparts have probably played hundreds of leads whereas I don’t think I’ve ever been seen for a lead on TV. It’s almost become tradition that you don’t.”
The situation is slightly better in theatre, she thinks, even if casting is still not always imaginative. In the wake of Nine Night, she has predictably been offered various Aunt Maggie-like roles, she says, which is why she’s glad to be playing a very different type of character in Downstate. “I always wanted to play this type of role, like a probation officer: she’s tough and carries a gun.”
After Downstate, though, she’d really like to do some substantial screen work. And would she ever follow Gordon’s lead and write something herself? “They say everybody’s got one good story in them. I don’t know what mine is, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Born: Hackney, London
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: The Tempest/Philoctetes, Cheek by Jowl (1988); The Recruiting Officer, National Theatre, London (1992); A Raisin in the Sun, Young Vic, London (2001); Yellowman, Liverpool Everyman and Hampstead Theatre, London (2004); Twelfth Night/The Comedy of Errors/The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon (2012); The Amen Corner, NT (2013); Once a Catholic, Tricycle Theatre, London (2013); Nine Night, NT and West End (2018)
Awards:MViSA Award for best actress for Danny and the Human Zoo (2015)
Agent: Identity Agency Group