Rehearsal Images - Ansu Kabia (Ricky) - To Sir With Love National Tour - Photo Nobby Clark
Ansu Kabia is a British actor who has worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and appeared in top television dramas such as London’s Burning and Casualty. Currently playing the lead role of Ricky in the touring Royal and Derngate production of To Sir, With Love, Kabia is not only giving an incredible performance but is making history. This is the first time that E.R Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel has been put on the stage and Kabia is determined to do the role justice. As Mr E.R Braithwaite himself described Kabia’s portrayal as ‘excellent’ in our exclusive follow up interview, there seems little doubt that Ansu Kabia was born to play this part.
Did you know that E.R Braithwaite himself was going to be at press night?
I didn’t know he was gonna be there so it was a complete shock to me. It was really incredible to have him there, just such an honour.
Prior to getting the part of Ricky, had you ever read the novel or seen the film adaptation?
As an actor the whole career is riddled with obstacles really. Only about five percent of actors are working at any one time in this country and really and truly a lot of the time it’s the same actors that get the jobs. I’ve been very lucky in my career to work fairly consistently but it’s a very hard profession.
No, I didn’t know anything about it. But when I told my dad that I was auditioning for To Sir, With Love he instantly clocked and so did my father in law ’cos obviously the film starred Sidney Poitier and he was important to their generation. So once I got the part I had a look at the book which was helpful and I started watching the film but I saw about 20 minutes before I thought ‘I’m not sure I should be doing this.’ Usually I have no problem watching or reading something in case it affects my performance but the film just felt a bit wrong. I think it was because I knew that E.R Braithwaite himself didn’t like it; in fact I heard him say in an interview that he ‘detests’ the film. From what I’ve seen of the film that’s fair enough as it didn’t seem to be trying to do what he was trying to do in the book.
Rehearsal Images - Ansu Kabia (Ricky) - To Sir With Love National Tour - Photo Nobby Clark
What do you feel the author was trying to do in the novel?
What I feel may be different to what Mr E.R Braithwaite feels but it seemed like the book was about him and his experience. It was easy for me to relate to, not as an actor but just as a human being. Considering that the play is set in 1948 just after the Second World War, which is a completely different situation to my own life now, it was still similar in terms of the way he experienced parts of life.
Him being an intelligent black man who is part of the British Empire and was living in this country at a time when there were strong ideals that came with that. All of these ideals would have been absorbed by him unconsciously growing up in British Guyana and then he was very inspired by the Spanish civil war as he explains in the book. Then the Second World War started and he joined the RAF to fight for these ideals that were in the motherland- in Britain. Then the war ended and he felt that his ideals no longer stood up when people didn’t have something to fight against.
When they went back to normal they went backwards rather than letting the war propel them into something better in the future. Spending 18 months unable to get a job because he couldn’t be in charge of white people and was overqualified must have been hard for him. So all of those things came across to me in the book.
This is the first time the novel has ever been put on stage. How did you prepare for the role?
The same way as always apart from reading the novel. I don’t think I’ve ever played a part where you have that kind of reference; straight from the horse’s mouth, so that was brilliant. He’d obviously describe the things that may have happened but he’d also talk about his internal response to that. Usually you have to humanise something which is quite two dimensional but because he was talking about him and what was going on inside his mind that was done for me almost. I always remember a part of the book that isn’t in the play where one of the kids makes a joke which is completely outrageous and he told him off for it, but in the book he later admits that he found it really funny. So things like that all the way through the book are really helpful because it meant that I could read the lines thinking about the human being that I’d been given and think as me, Asnu, as little as possible.
Did the classroom scenes remind you of your own school experiences?
The book To Sir With Love and hopefully this play can give us all an understanding of the need for acceptance and for everybody to be able to communicate on an equal footing.
Some of what happens on stage is nowhere near what happens in a lot of normal schools around the country, definitely the school I went to! I went to school called Central Foundation, but I don’t want to be disparaging about it; it was a very good school but kids will be kids and it was a boy’s school so boys will be boys. So I think I could easily relate to the kids just by remembering the things that happened in our classrooms. I’ve never been a teacher and I just got thinking how hard it must have been for my own teachers to keep control of a class. Those scenes I kind of enjoy the most, especially as we have the kids form Northampton and most of them just finished their GCSEs and so are actually the age that they’re playing. So the age difference is very similar to what the dynamic that would have existed between the kids and Mr E.R Braithwaite himself when he was teaching.
Matthew Kelly’s character Florian said a particularly poignant line ‘Every child remembers one teacher.’ Is there one teacher that you remember?
Oh! (Laughs.) Well I remember a few but I can’t remember their names unfortunately! I remember one name which is Mr Royal and he was a drama teacher, but I wasn’t interested in acting or anything like that at that age. But I remember him because I offended him once. I was down to go and see this show in London and the teacher overheard me saying to another boy ‘Yeah, I’m going; get some time off school isn’t it? Why not?’ and he lost it, so I was very embarrassed. Then I remember going to a parents’ evening at the end of year nine and Mr Royal and the lady who headed the drama department expected me to pick drama. When I realised they expected that I was like ‘No, I’m doing art!’ That was my subject; it was the thing I really loved, but the fact that they thought I’d choose it made me think maybe they could see something in me. It was only actually at A Level time that I decided to take Theatre Studies, and realised it was what I would do as a career. Teachers that really affected me were like my P.E teachers; I guess because they were men and as a boy you’re trying to work out exactly what it means to be a man so they were really good role models. Other than that my design and technology teachers ’cos that was another subject that I really loved. I remember exactly what they look like but I can’t remember their names!
Rehearsal Images - L-R Ansu Kabia (Ricky) & Matthew Kelly (Florian) - To Sir With Love National Tour - Photo Nobby Clark
In the play your character has to overcome a lot of obstacles. As an actor working in 2013 what obstacles have you had to overcome?
As an actor the whole career is riddled with obstacles really. Only about five percent of actors are working at any one time in this country and really and truly a lot of the time it’s the same actors that get the jobs. I’ve been very lucky in my career to work fairly consistently but it’s a very hard profession. I was lucky enough to have a two and a half year contract with the RSC at one time which in a way is not good because you get too comfortable, but usually you know it will only be three or four months. There are obstacles like the fact that you can only play what the directors, producers or casting agents think you can play. A lot of that is based on how you look; what race you are or how tall you are. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to audition successfully. Often you get hardly any time to read the play or the script and I’m dyslexic as well so limited time makes it difficult. Also you want to have a nice, normal life as much as you can outside of touring or strange working hours. Really and truly, if I had a choice I wouldn’t be acting really, but you do it because you have to. It’s just in you; it’s a part of you and you have to dedicate yourself to the art form. It’s a beautiful thing as well as a challenging one.
Rehearsal Images - Ansu Kabia (Ricky) & Cast - To Sir With Love National Tour - Photo Nobby Clark
Why should people come and see To Sir, With Love?
Because it’s relevant. It’s very hard to act in a show that you don’t believe is doing anything for anybody. With this show I believe if you come and see it you will honestly get something out of it which will inform your life. Actually, more importantly, I want everyone to come and see the show but I’d love them to read the book. Especially if you’re black in this country, or black in the west, the book makes you feel ‘I’m not alone’ not just in this time but through all the times that people have gone somewhere where they look different and can be treated almost as an alien. The book and hopefully this play can give us all an understanding of the need for acceptance and for everybody to be able to communicate on an equal footing.
To Sir With Love – review
E.R Braithwaite – interview