Currently starring in On Bear Ridge at London’s Royal Court, the actor has enjoyed a run of extraordinary roles. She talks to Heather Marks about ageism, the need for more investment in black actors in the UK, why longevity is more important than ‘being the first’ – and how she stayed creative with the help of her stellar brunch group
Rakie Ayola is having a terrific year. In 2019, the actor – who previously played Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End – has given acclaimed performances in plays including The Half God of Rainfall, Inua Ellams’ contemporary myth-melding follow-up to Barber Shop Chronicles, at Kiln Theatre, Strange Fruit at the Bush and, more recently, On Bear Ridge. Her performances have been so strong one reviewer for The Stage has called for Ayola to be “cast in everything”.
On Bear Ridge is lauded Welsh playwright Ed Thomas’ first play in 15 years, but his is not the only homecoming. The production, which recently closed its run at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre ahead of its arrival in London, was also a return for Ayola, who has not performed at the venue since playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice in 1992. “I’ve had so many waves of nostalgia wash over me and stop me in my tracks,” she says. “Thirty-five years have been swirling around in my head.”
Brought up in Ely, Cardiff, Ayola was a performer from a young age, taking part in her school plays, as well as the orchestra and choir. She was inspired to perform early on by seeing Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! on television. Encouraged by her teacher, she joined Orbit Theatre and the South Glamorgan Youth Theatre, and would go on to audition for drama school.
“I organised it all myself. My mum had died when I was 14, and my dad was still grieving. I was way too young for the London schools. I turned up at the auditions wearing 4in heels – because I was going to London and that’s what you did – and had to do the audition in my socks.”
Aged 17, Ayola was offered a place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and decided to leave school the Christmas before she was due to sit her exams. “I gave all my books to my friend and said: ‘Tell them I’m not coming back.’”
But once at drama school, she found it tough. “I felt I was surrounded by worldly, artistic, creative, intelligent people who’d flown in from somewhere, while I was still living at home on a council estate with my dad. I felt really dumb, and my way through it was to smile constantly.”
The school’s head of acting noticed the change in Ayola and cast her in a series of roles, “desperate to find something” of the girl who’d auditioned. It was the role of Jesus in Dennis Potter’s Son of Man – in particular the scene where Jesus tears up the marketplace – that unlocked something inside Ayola.
“I didn’t realise how much I was holding in: whether it was because my biological mother had given me away, or because I’d grown up with parents who I loved who weren’t my real parents, or because my ‘adopted’ mum – it wasn’t official – had died when I was 14. Whatever the reason, I was a ball of anger, furious at a whole bunch of things I’d never allowed myself to be furious about.”
This propelled her to work in heavy drama, a world away from the musical that had first inspired her. She appeared in Shakespeare productions – including that Merchant of Venice in Cardiff as well as Hamlet and Twelfth Night at Birmingham Rep – which she credits for gifting her with another skill she still uses today in both her stage and TV work. “I always go back to the text. I lean on it to find any clues I can. To find the music in a line is really important to me, and that’s what I loved about On Bear Ridge – the musicality in Ed’s writing.”
This ear and eye for the text is a skill that has served her well, drawing out finely tuned performances at the National, Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe as well as in the West End. She spent three years on BBC drama Holby City, but apart from one-season appearances in No Offence in 2017 and Shetland two years later, her complex roles have largely been on the stage. “Finding those roles on television that feed your soul are so hard,” she says. “There aren’t many, and often the ones that are really nourishing will go to the people who bring in the audience. I get that.”
‘To find the music in a line is very important to me, and that’s what I loved about On Bear Ridge’
It’s a wider issue for black British actors, and Ayola sees the answer as one of investment. “When it comes to black actors in the UK, it would be nice to see somebody invested in again and again to the same level black male actors are in America. It is not an adequate offer to say: ‘That person was wonderful in that, so I’d like them for one scene in my sitcom.’”
For Ayola, this investment also comes in the form of promoting different names, and not just long-standing stars such as Sophie Okonedo or Thandie Newton. Also, actors shouldn’t get distracted by “being the first”, she adds. “Longevity is massive for me because it means I’m part of a tradition. I don’t care that I am the 50th person to play Cleopatra – I join the 49 others. If being the first is all that’s important, your roots are that big,” Ayola presses her thumb and forefinger together, “and somebody can just pull them up. If I’m the first, my energy should be in ensuring there is a second.”
It’s a salient point that pushes the focus of representation in British theatre towards sustainability, shifting the conversation around black British theatremakers from ‘contemporary’ into the canon. Practising what she preaches, Ayola has founded a production company, Shanty Productions, “committed to producing drama that speaks to a diverse audience”. Last year, it released its debut film, an adaptation of Twelfth Night starring Olivier award-winning actor Sheila Atim.
Ayola believes her recent run of extraordinary roles wouldn’t have happened without her brunch group. Made up of writers, academics, and actors Ashley Miller, Michele Austin, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Martina Laird, Natasha Gordon and Ayola, the ‘brunch discussion’ formed because “we were about to enter a phase, because of our age, when the industry wouldn’t need us anymore. Sharon said: ‘Let’s stay creative. Let’s take care of each other.’”
The group meets regularly to share work and Ayola whips out her phone to show an old email from Gordon to the group: it’s a first draft of Nine Night, Gordon’s debut that was staged at the National Theatre, then in the West End, and won her most promising playwright of 2019 from the Critics’ Circle.
“Sharon’s won a best actress award, Michele was in White Teeth, Ashley is an incredible academic with papers coming out of her ears, and I’ve been in the West End twice with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Cursed Child, having never been in the West End before – and I’ve been acting for 30 years. Our careers went to a place they had never been, just at the point we thought we would be lucky to get any work at all.”
Ayola took over the role of Hermione in Harry Potter from Noma Dumezweni in May 2017 until May the following year. “It was a privilege to take over from Noma. I loved the cast and the fans; I got to see the wonder of the wizarding world through their eyes.” After meeting the same fans repeatedly at stage door, Ayola asked them a question that would spark the hashtag #WhyIGoBacktoCC and an avalanche of heartfelt essays in response. This, she says, made her feel “a massive, wonderful responsibility to be as visible as possible”, adding: “I think there were maybe two performances when I wasn’t at stage door.”
Currently, Ayola is starring with Rhys Ifans in On Bear Ridge, which transfers to London’s Royal Court tonight. Ayola and Ifans play Noni and John Daniel, owners of a forgotten store in a lost village, defiantly staying put as everything fades around them. As Ayola says, it’s about “loss and pain. Loss of memory, way of life, of people. And despite all that – or maybe because of that – it’s also very funny. At times painfully so.”
With a string of five-star reviews for On Bear Ridge during its run in Cardiff, a slew of acclaimed productions in the past 12 months, and a best actress nomination at the Black British Theatre Awards – taking place this weekend – it’s easy to understand when Ayola says: “This year has restored my faith in what’s possible on stage.”
On Bear Ridge is at London’s Royal Court from October 24 to November 23. Further details at: royalcourttheatre.com