Esh Alladi is an A&E doctor and LAMDA-trained actor whose theatre credits include Hobson’s Choice at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, for which he won the 2019 UK Theatre award for best supporting performance. As part of a series of Q&A’s celebrating the contributions of theatremakers during the coronavirus crisis, Alladi tells Giverny Masso how playing a doctor in another play at the Royal Exchange made him a better medic in real life…
Which came first – theatre or medicine?
In secondary school we did lots of drama and I wanted to be an actor, but being brown and from Manchester, I thought there was no point in going into a business where I would never work. My grandparents on both sides are doctors, and my parents were very supportive. They said: “If you want to go to drama school, just get another degree first.” So I went to medical school at Cambridge University. During that time, I kept doing plays and musicals, and I was always surrounded by amazing people. The very first show I did at university was West Side Story with Eddie Redmayne. I decided to go to LAMDA for the two-year course, and funded it by working in A&E.
Have any of your theatre skills helped with medicine?
I remember doing a play called Wit at the Royal Exchange where I played a doctor. He was a really bad doctor – very much about the science and not the person. I remember thinking: ‘I’m not like this, I’m really lovely.’ When I went back to the hospital, I found myself repeating the character’s exact lines. I had a huge existential crisis and realised it’s easy to be like that when you’re busy in A&E and want to get the job done. Acting taught me that there’s a version of being a doctor where I can just be me as opposed to a ‘professional’ version. If somebody came to me and said “I’ve got really bad chest pain,” I’d say: “That’s awful, are you okay?” There’s no reason I can’t say that as a doctor as well. There’s no reason I can’t be a person first – doing the play taught me that.
How has medicine helped your acting career?
Perspective. Whenever you think: ‘Why am I not getting that part?’ and then you go to work and you see people in A&E. When someone gets to A&E, it’s the worst day of their life. I don’t sweat it as much when I have a bad day in rehearsal now, even though it’s fine to feel bad about it because it’s your work. It’s a rationalising process that helps me.
What has it been like preparing for the influx of Covid-19 patients?
In the first few weeks, it was like when the tide goes out before the tsunami and the birds stop singing. Or before a nuclear explosion, when all the air gets sucked out, and there’s a moment of silence before the boom. Everything is a little bit more tense because you don’t know when they’re going to come in, and you don’t know how many there will be. I’ve seen 20 year olds and 35 year olds requiring ventilation, so the virus is not discriminating. The only people who seem to be fine are children.
In the first few weeks of the crisis, it was like when the tide goes out before the tsunami and the birds stop singing
What is your message to those in the arts during this time?
There’s pressure to think that during this time we’ve got to be creating new things. But I think we should be taking solace in each other in whatever way we need. If that is creating new things, then that’s brilliant, but it’s a trauma for the country and I think we’re all flying without a net. Everyone needs time to mourn their loved ones and their freedom. If I want to create, I’ll let it happen when it needs to happen.
Training: Foundation degree in professional acting at LAMDA (2010-12)
First professional role: Fox and various animals in The Wind in the Willows with Birmingham Rep at the Crescent Theatre (2012)
Agent: Nick Errington at Grantham Hazeldine
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