Nikki Amuka-Bird: ‘I’ve been longing to do Ibsen. It is a rite of passage’
Nikki Amuka-Bird was brought up on classic films and learned to love theatre at drama school. The celebrated star of stage and screen tells Nick Clark about finally being cast in an Ibsen play and working with Kwame Kwei-Armah
Nikki Amuka-Bird is positively bouncing. Just two hours before we meet, news had broken that Kwame Kwei-Armah – who is currently directing her in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea – is to succeed David Lan as artistic director of the Young Vic. Sitting in a Greek restaurant a stone’s throw from the Donmar Warehouse’s rehearsal rooms, she is wreathed in smiles. “I’m blown away by the news; this is actually amazing. It feels like a real watershed moment,” she says, adding gleefully: “I think we should have today off work to celebrate.”
Reflecting on her work with the man of the moment, Amuka-Bird observes that it “isn’t normal…You just have to jump in.”
It turns out she means this literally when it comes to his rehearsal process. Every morning starts with “a little bit of carnival” in which the cast dances for 20 minutes to work up a sweat. This is intended to override the company’s inner critics and “reminds us that this is what we want to do, that we love it”.
While Amuka-Bird and Kwei-Armah met early in their careers, this is the first time they have collaborated professionally beyond sharing a platform for a talk on diversity in front of television industry executives. A few months after that, Kwei-Armah got in touch to talk about his revival of the 1888 Ibsen play at the Donmar. “I didn’t know the play, but I’d been longing to work on Ibsen,” she says. “I had been reading his plays and am fascinated by how he delved so deeply into the human psyche.”
Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House and Ghosts are all part of our theatrical tradition, she says, “but I didn’t see myself as having access to those characters”. She adds: “They are often placed in a certain period, which would make it quite complicated historically for a person like myself to be in it. So I really wanted to have a go. Ibsen writes such wonderful, confident roles for women, I suppose I see it as a rite of passage really.”
Amuka-Bird plays Ellida, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who longs for the sea after she moves to a small mountain town with her husband. When a long-lost lover returns, she needs to make a choice over whether to stay or make a bid for freedom.
“It is about passion and freedom versus responsibility and society. There’s also an idea of spirituality and self-knowledge connected to that,” she says.
This production has relocated the action from west Norway to the West Indies in the 1950s. Amuka-Bird says: “We were looking for something that felt contemporary in some ways, and that could use our backgrounds to inform it. We asked if it could house all the ideas that were true to us. This also included our culture and stories.”
The play reminded Kwei-Armah of growing up in Grenada. For Amuka-Bird – who was born in Lagos but left when she was young – it resonated with her growing up partly in Antigua before she was sent to boarding school in Britain.
Her family home in the West Indies is by the sea. “This idea of Ellida having a passion for the sea is something I understand. As a family we’d always talk about returning home. I like this idea of a connection to nature, and how it wasn’t an indulgence on my character’s part.”
The Lady from the Sea is a curiosity in Ibsen’s canon as it has a happy ending. Well, happy-ish – for Amuka-Bird, the conclusion remains problematic. “Ellida expresses such turmoil and unrest at the marriage, there’s a question over whether she’s failed herself at the end,” she says. “The themes are very relevant now. And there’s something romantic about couples tested to their limits and rediscovering each other.”
The actor does research to get hooks into her characters, but not so much she isn’t open to suggestion from directors. “I like to layer a character, like with oil paints. You don’t answer all the questions at once, but as you investigate she reveals herself.”
Q&A: Nikki Amuka-Bird
What was your first non-theatre job? I used to work in a candle shop called Angelic, doing the floors and arranging the displays.
What was your first professional theatre job? 50 Revolutions directed by Dominic Dromgoole at Oxford Stage Company.
What’s your next job? The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To enjoy it. It takes quite a long time until you get to a point where you can enjoy it.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother, who sadly passed away last year. She was a single mother who achieved every single one of her dreams. She gave me so much encouragement and always told me to be part of the solution, not the problem.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Learn your lines.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? My fantasy job is to be a tennis player. It’s a total fantasy. In my head, I’m Serena Williams when I play.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t mention the Scottish Play in theatres. The only ritual is to greet the cast and make sure we’ve seen each other before going on each night.
Rather than the theatre, Amuka-Bird was raised on classic films by her mother from a young age; the first words she learnt to read were ‘play’, ‘stop’ and ‘record’ on the family’s old Betamax player. Her first stage appearance wasn’t until she was 17, when she played a worm in James and the Giant Peach. It was there at Hurtwood House in Surrey that her drama teacher guided Amuka-Bird away from dance and convinced her to apply for drama school. She won a place at LAMDA, where she learnt about “technique, using your voice and sharing a performance with a live audience for the first time”. She adds: “We were always searching for the performance that stops you thinking and invites empathy. That’s very powerful.”
After leaving the school in 2000, her first job interview was with Peter O’Toole. He was to direct and star as Prospero in a production of The Tempest in the West Indies and chose Amuka-Bird to play Ariel. “Just meeting him was incredible. He looked so wise, but also cheeky,” she says. “He knew things I couldn’t even begin to imagine. It was lovely, he was very sensitive to the fact I was young and inexperienced. He told me about gaining confidence and the magic of storytelling.”
The show never happened but it helped Amuka-Bird land an agent and ‘set her off’. Her debut came in a production directed by Dominic Dromgoole called 50 Revolutions at Whitehall Theatre, followed by The Servant to Two Masters for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
She returned to the Tempest shortly after, on an RSC tour, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the company.
After a commendation for the Ian Charleson Award, which celebrates the best classical stage performances for actors under 30 in Britain, for playing Viola in Twelfth Night at the Bristol Old Vic, she made her Donmar debut in World Music – which originated in Sheffield – in 2004. It was directed by Josie Rourke. “It’s incredible to be returning with her as artistic director. I love it here,” Amuka-Bird says of her first time back in 13 years.
She picks the National’s Welcome to Thebes in 2010 as a standout theatre role for her. Directed by Richard Eyre, it relocated Greek tragedy to Africa. “It was my first time at the National, but Richard is so comfortable there that he positions you and guides you to work the space.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, she starred in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at the Royal Court Theatre, in which 16 actors played more than 100 characters, and returned to the venue for Birdland with Andrew Scott.
There was also The Trial of Ubu, at Hampstead, a typically challenging piece from director Katie Mitchell in which Amuka-Bird played an interpreter in a sound booth.
Mitchell “made a real impression” on Amuka-Bird, she says. “She was very rigorous and detailed in her research. I now ask more questions of the characters. It’s more important to have the detailed answers to the character.”
Amuka-Bird is a familiar face on television. She “did her time” on shows including The Bill, Casualty, Holby City and Bad Girls, before meatier roles in shows including Spooks, The Line of Beauty, Silent Witness, Luther and Quarry in the US.
“I really enjoy filming work. It’s a completely different discipline. The feeling of being on location and on set with a crew; it’s about living it in a slightly more visceral way,” she says.
The different disciplines “really complement each other”, she adds. “If I do theatre for a while, it’s exciting to go back to filming based on what I’m learning now and how rigorously I have to investigate the text.”
She was recently hailed for her turn as Natalie in NW, adapted from Zadie Smith’s novel, on the BBC, in which her character has broken boundaries, though at some cost to her personal relationships.
It brings us back to Kwei-Armah, and how lightly he wears the responsibility of becoming the first British African-Caribbean artistic director of a major UK theatre.
“He’s breaking boundaries, defining himself as an artist and in terms of the conversation of diverse representation,” she says. “Kwame and I have been able to talk honestly about experiences that might have defined us, which could have been limiting and how we are still being brave.”
Before she returns to the rehearsal room – she decides against taking the day off in celebration – she says: “We are living in exciting times, artistically. I feel very excited to be where I am,” before adding, hopefully: “It’s very important that these doors stay open in the future. It doesn’t have to be the story that it was yesterday.”
CV: Nikki Amuka-Bird
Born: 1976, Lagos, Nigeria
Landmark productions: The Tempest, RSC touring production (2000), World Music, Donmar Warehouse (2004), Doubt: A Parable, Tricycle Theatre (2007), Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre (2010), The Trial of Ubu, Hampstead Theatre (2012), Birdland, Royal Court Theatre (2014)
Agent: Gary O’Sullivan at Troika
The Lady from the Sea runs at the Donmar Warehouse until December 2