Raphael Sowole

Royal Shakespeare Company
Interview by: Elvina Quaison

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has an exciting season packed with innovative and impactful productions. Afridiziak have highlighted some of these and spoken with powerful cast members such as Jude Owusu who is the lead in Tamburlaine (finishes 1 Dec 2018). Turning our attention to the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth we took the opportunity to speak with Raphael Sowole, who has roles in both productions.

What does acting mean to you?

Acting for me is an opportunity to tell stories, I think good acting is solely about story telling it’s about relationships. As an artist it’s an opportunity to be in someone else’s shoes for a little while. Take on the task of telling that human being’s story no matter how big or small it is.

What has been your biggest story?

I did Hamlet at Stratford Circus and we toured as well and that play was epic, that was a task. It is such a nuanced play and there is so much about the character of Hamlet. We explored it from a black perspective, what does a modern day Hamlet look like today. I think you can find a modern day black Hamlet in Brixton for example. We also explored it through the angle of mental health in black people and what does that mean. Particularly with that story, it is about relationships and the beauty in a person and the mess and uncovering all of that so when people come to the theatre they are engaged. They are recognising something whether it is in their own lives or people that they care about. That is what acting should be about in my opinion, it should be about connecting with people. People being able to look at the stage and saying ‘I know what that is, I have felt like that before’.

There have been many productions of Romeo and Juliet what do you think this production brings to the story?

We had someone from the Ben Kinsella Trust come over and do a talk with us, it is a Trust focused on knife crime and we had a talk and we watched a video of a young person who was fatally stabbed. I think what Erica (Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director) has tried to do with this production is make it as relevant as possible. We have taken the perspective of rather than blaming young people for the problems we are having in our communities today, seeing it from their perspective. Young people aren’t listened too, in Romeo and Juliet they weren’t listened to. For example Tybalt is somewhat stripped of his sense of self, his masculinity by Capulet which is why he feels this need to prove himself, which ultimately leads to his demise and his death.

I think what Erica Whyman, (Deputy Artistic Director) has tried to do with this production is make it as relevant as possible. We have taken the perspective of rather than blaming young people for the problems we are having in our communities today, seeing it from their perspective

We have tried to look at it through how the sins of our parents, or people who are supposed to be in positions of leadership kind of undermine the young people. Also looking at how they are not having a voice and how that impacts the young people. Because this is a story of love but hate is extremely present in the story as well. Also there is the topic of fighting for something you don’t quite understand. You can look at it in today’s culture, these extreme groups fighting for these different causes because they are being told that this is what they are supposed to believe in and not quite being able to grasp or understand it, which draws a comparison to Romeo and Juliet. This sense of honour and not quite knowing what this war is for, this two household war, but believing he (Tybalt) must continue that fight for his sense of self. In our version Tybalt’s sense of identity is fighting, but not fighting in the sense of scraps but it’s trained, it’s a skill. So for example if I was going to put it in a modern day context you wouldn’t see Tybalt in a street brawl but in a boxing ring, so that there is a respect to it, an honour in it.

Tell me about your Tybalt?

I think I’ve looked at friends who I’ve grown up with, I was brought up in Peckham and I went to an all-boys school, and I think there is a strong sense of not being shamed. If someone shames you, or makes you look like an idiot or, excuse my language, a dickhead you just don’t let that fly. That’s the neighbourhood I grew up in respect is everything. I’ve taken that route to be able to access this character.

Are there steps to get schools and young people to see this production?

Oh yes. In the prologue the RSC has a group of young people from different schools and they basically rehearse and they take part in the telling of the prologue along with some of the other actors. I think it’s strong as it builds a real sense of community and helps them understand how the feud between the two families affect the civilians. It is a fantastic idea and a brilliant opportunity for young people who don’t usually go to the theatre let alone get on stage to be involved. You can see that they all find it incredibly rewarding as well. It’s very modern, very current. I think the people who see it will appreciate that it is a production that forces you to engage and not be a passive audience.

Ultimately I think it is about getting the best actors for the jobs and it is not about ‘we need a black person or we need an Asian person’ but they just need the best person for the part.

You are in Black Earth Rising. What do you enjoy about film/ TV as compared to the stage?

This is one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. It was a beautiful piece of writing by Hugo Blip who is also the director and also co-starring, I did my scene with him actually. I think it was a brave piece of television and he tells the story with real courage detail and complexity too. A job like that was very easy as the writing was so good. You didn’t have to do much and that makes your life easy as an actor because you can just get in the room and everyone is on the same page as the writing is so brilliant we know where we are going. You almost don’t need to over rehearse whereas with a play like Shakespeare there are so many different interpretations you could have so you really have to get in a room for 6 to 8 weeks to figure out the story you want to tell. Whereas Hugo is very specific in the story he is wanting to tell through the writing. I think most people who were part of it all would say it is a gift of a job.

Looking at the cast of Black Earth Rising I recognised a number of excellent actors I’ve seen on stage. Is there something of a black actor’s community?

Oh yeah of course, I think there is a small community of actors as far as black talent goes. You do find yourself in the same projects. You do find yourself supporting friends or friends of friends so you do get to know each other quickly and so yes there is a support there. As much as you may not always pick up the phone and call each other there is a silent support there. Wanting and rooting for each other to do well. I think there is a togetherness as well. It is such a joy when you get opportunities to work with black actors on big projects like Black Earth Rising it’s brilliant, special. You do notice it when you are in a room, in the company of black actors I think it brings out a side people, whether conscious or sub-conscious, it brings out a side that is playful and fun. Which is great, I think, fantastic.

It appears that the RSC has strong recognition of more diversity in casting, what do you think?

I think they are trying. I think there is still a long way to go but I recognise that they are trying to improve that. Ultimately I think it is about getting the best actors for the jobs and it is not about ‘we need a black person or we need an Asian person’ but they just need the best person for the part. I would like to think that the directors I’ve worked with, particularly this season, have done that. You know you look at a production like Romeo and Juliet and you note that there is a lot of diversity in the cast. I think Erica was conscious about that as she doesn’t want it to become a story about race but that you can look at a production, our production for example and you can see it is a play about people. Which I think if done well is a triumph, to look at a cast and see people you would see on the street.

NEED TO KNOW: You can find Raphael Sowole in Macbeth until 18 January 2018 | BOOK TICKETS and Romeo and Juliet until 19 January 2019 at The Barbican and then other venues until 23 March 2019 | BOOK TICKETS Tamburlaine offer – get £10 tickets to see Tamburlaine by quoting: 20412 for performances until 1 Dec 2018 | BOOK TICKETS