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INTERVIEW: Akiya Henry on her inspirational upbringing and playing a fiesty Beatrice in the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing

Akiya Henry is every bit as sharp and funny as Beatrice, the role she currently inhabits for the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing. She tells Gill Sutherland about the production and her joy-filled upbringing.

You are fresh from winning the award as best supporting actor for Lady Macduff at the Almeida in the What’s On Awards last night… Congratulations, how was it?

It was really lovely. There were some really beautiful performances. We got to see a little excerpt from some of the beautiful new musicals out there. It was very bizarre because they said my name and I was like ‘oh that’s me!’. I hadn’t prepared a speech or anything because I thought I wasn’t going to win, I’ll just go and support everyone else. I was up on the stage thinking, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got to talk to everyone’.

RSC actor Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5545. (55199293)
RSC actor Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5545. (55199293)

Did you manage the speech?

I think I did, my agent today has had a few emails from people saying ‘can you please tell Akiya her speech was really lovely’, so something worked. In my head I just thought, ‘don’t do a Gwyneth Paltrow, get off the stage’.

What do you think it was about that production of Macbeth and your role in it that was a winner?

Yaël Farber who directed it is this incredible auteur, the way she creates and tells stories. With Macbeth she was really interested in exploring the oppression of the patriarchy but also elevating the women in the play to tell the story of how women and children spend a lot of time either cleaning up after men’s mess or paying the ultimate price for it. So that’s what attracted me to this version.

The show explored how the cycle of violence continues, it had a really raw visceral aesthetic and didn’t shy away from the violence and pain.

Initially I was in two minds about Lady Macduff – we’d just had Black Lives Matter and George Floyd – so is it right for me as a black woman to be on stage once again and for a load of people to watch black people get slaughtered? Would I be triggering my community’s trauma? But actually, the scene [where Lady Macduff is killed], is shied away from a lot of the time, but this was an opportunity to actually be very honest and explicit about the violence black people are subjected to. It was a black family and the Macbeths were white, so it was really highlighting not just the patriarchy but also colonisation and systemic racism all in one go. So I would be ridiculous to turn it down!

RSC actress Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5520. (55199280)
RSC actress Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5520. (55199280)

On to Much Ado About Nothing – tell us about the Afrofuturistic aesthetic that is at its heart.

It’s interesting isn’t it because boys and men used to play the female roles, that’s just accepted. But now when we decide to swap genders or diversify a company with the LGBTQ+ community or in relation to race – it becomes the forefront of the conversation.

Afrofuturism represents the past and the present in a way to access the liberation of the black community and to empower them through the black cultural lens. We are telling the story and it just so happens that it is in the future and there is a group of incredible black people that are in power. It’s that beautiful thing of celebrating black culture.

We see so much in the media of the sensationalised version of black culture and some of it can really be quite dark and soul destroying. Fundamentally what we are doing is saying black culture is incredible and it’s light and it’s fun because we’ve had to go to that place because of all that we’ve been subjected to.

Beatrice is an amazing character – tell us about her and how close you feel to her.

In a world where the patriarchy is so dominant she chooses to really fully embrace everything that is woman about her and also challenge the establishment at the same time and also have fun whilst doing it too. That’s what I kind of love about Beatrice as a character: she fully takes up space

I feel like I identify with her a lot, actually in a way I feel like I am aspiring to be more Beatrice in terms of her joy and quick wit. I feel like I have a little element of that. I’m not quite as intelligent as her but I enjoy the banter!

As a black woman we spend a lot of time being minimised by society and that’s across the board. We really have to protect ourselves before we fully allow ourselves to trust another person with us. I feel like I really align with that part of Beatrice. This woman genuinely wants love but she’s aware that she can’t give her heart and her soul to someone that is not worthy of it. I’m definitely in that place! I’m still single because every man that is coming my way is really not stepping up! Thank God, Benedick eventually does.

RSC actress Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5538. (55199284)
RSC actress Akia Henry. Photo: Mark Williamson R11/2/22/5538. (55199284)

You’ll find your Benedick someday! What has been the reaction to the play?

Well literally every time I walk through Stratford I get some incredible person come up to me and tell me how much they loved the show. Actually, some of them do try a little patois which is quite interesting! But the response has been overwhelmingly brilliant.

Over the last two years I feel our government has made us feel that theatre doesn’t matter but coming back you realise how important it is not just as a form of entertainment but for the people who watch it it’s like a medicine. What’s so lovely being in Stratford and the RST is how beautiful and supportive and generous and giving the audience has been. We’ve had full houses every night and we leave that stage buzzing because the response at the end is incredible. They want us to come back and give them another bow. Part of me wants to get them up dancing at the end of it as well. We couldn’t ask for better audiences to be honest.

When did the acting bug bite?

I basically came out of the womb singing and dancing and giving my parents hell. It was something I knew I always wanted to do. I always said to friends I’m envious that you get to go on this beautiful journey of discovery because I’ve always had this one path, although I’m grateful for it. My beautiful mum and dad may they rest in peace, were like if we don’t put her in dance school, she will drive us insane. We spent lots of late nights watching MGM musicals. My whole world and childhood was about creativity.

Tell us about your home life.

I was raised in Weston-Super-Mare where I was fostered with two of my siblings and mum and dad were just incredible. So I was raised in North Somerset with the farmers and the cider. Then I got into the National Youth Music Theatre which I was with for five years and through that agents had asked me to sign up. I didn’t know whether to go to drama school or sign with an agent but Jeremy James Taylor, the artistic director at the time basically said, ‘Akiya go for it! Drama school’s not going anywhere’. So I did and I haven’t looked back since.

Akiya Henry as Beatrice photo IKIN YUM (54936119)
Akiya Henry as Beatrice photo IKIN YUM (54936119)

What was your route after that?

I went to Gail Gordon’s Dance School in the Bristol Old Vic theatre. With Shakespeare I sometimes get that imposter syndrome when I walk into a room when I think, should I be here? But I feel very lucky that one of my first big jobs was Trevor Nunn’s last two shows at the National Theatre. So I did Anything Goes and Love’s Labour’s Lost and that felt like a whole incredible seminar on the art and technique of Shakespeare whilst working with incredible people.

Whenever you approach Shakespeare you’re always terrified but actually you understand more than you realise because he’s so brilliant about writing about the human condition. So each time I apply something that I’ve learnt from a previous role I’ve been in or something that an incredible experienced actor has guided me on and then I apply it and it empowers me and you realise Shakespeare is for everyone.

There’s been a few hiccups with the Much Ado, with actor Michael Balogun, due to play Benedick, dropping out before opening night – can you tell me about that?

I won’t go into details just out of respect for Michael and Luke [Wilson, the understudy who stepped in]. Luke was so on it as an understudy even before anything happened and it felt like a seamless transition really. We are very lucky to have a company that is so supportive of each other. Luke is so lovely to work with so it has been very easy.

Did you have to reconsider what you did in response to the change of leading man?

Yeah definitely. Michael and I had worked together before so there was already a familiarity between us. But this actually keeps the role fresh for me and it’s important for Luke to put his own stamp on Benedick. The role of an actor is always about listening and being able to adapt where possible to what you’ve been given. It just felt like another day in rehearsals, it didn’t feel like a massive jolt to me in terms of who my Beatrice is and the world was so clear as well. It felt beneficial to the production.

We have to talk about the costumes as well!

Oh my God! After the tech I felt like Beyoncé or Alicia Keys hosting the Grammys. Every minute there’s a new costume and each one gets more and more fabulous. Melissa Simon Hartman is a genius and great fun to be around too. She’s created something extremely spectacular that we’ve never really seen before. The way that she’s incorporated all the references to black culture but also all the references to Shakespeare and the way that she’s combined that to create a beautiful explosion of colour and vibrancy and black power and eloquence – I literally doff my hat.

Is there a favourite piece that you’d like to keep?

I think it’s my first costume in Act 1 Scene 1. I love the colours and the patterns. I have a beautiful green headdress, and massive Joan Collins-in-Dynasty shoulders, gorgeous corset, and this beautiful long skirt with panels so actually you get to see a bit of leg. Beatrice reveals a lot of her fleshiness which I think is on purpose to say this is a black woman that fully embraces her sexuality too. The one that comes a close second is the gold and sparkly skirt at the end. Everyone that I know that has come to see the show wants that skirt!

You mentioned your family – are you close to your siblings?

Yes very close to my siblings. My older sister Caroline is incredible. She’s mentally and physically disabled so I am her main carer. She is a force of nature and everything is about colour; she’s just braided her hair bright orange and could literally be in the show. Caroline is really excited to come and see the show. I think she’s more excited about seeing all the hunks on stage. My other sister Joyce is a medical practitioner, but is going to work with young offenders, and she has a daughter, Maya, who is 12 – she loved the show. We are all very close.

Growing up who were your heroes and mentors?

My heroes were my mum and dad – Joyce and George Dymock. All three of us were with them since we were babies. They were incredible, they taught us so much about the world and not being afraid. My mum was white-Maltese and my dad was white-British and they helped us stand very strong and tall in our blackness and to embrace who we are. Be yourself, that was their mantra and everything was about fun and joy and living life. My mum was a powerhouse she was known as the queen of Weston. Everyone wanted to come to hang out at our house, that’s how much of an inspiration my parents were.

What about actors?

Growing up it was all of the incredible golden oldies at the time – Dorothy Dandridge, Betty Grable and Lucille Ball – all of these incredible women who were putting a stamp on the industry and taking up space.

Now I admire Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, Erykah Badu and Winsome Pinnock, a board member at the RSC and an incredible black female writer. All these people, whether visible or not, enable us to continue to tell our stories in the ways we chose to.

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