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Q&A with Joan Iyiola

AFFECTING CHANGE: Joan Iyiola is hoping her role in The Duchess of Malfi will help foster diversity in the British theatre industry

Life & Style: How did you get into acting?
Joan Iyiola: My passion for acting specifically began at the National Youth Theatre, which I attended when I was 16 years old.

However, I actually decided to go the educational route, and I studied law at Cambridge University because at the time I also really wanted to become a barrister.

At the National Youth Theatre I was able to perform in many plays – it wasn’t until my last year at university that I said to myself that I officially wanted to be an actor.

L&S: Tell me more about your role in The Duchess of Malfi? JI: I play the Duchess and I have a history with the Royal Shakespeare Company as the last show I did with them, was The White Devil in 2014.

Myself and the director of that production became great friends and stayed connected.

Auditions for The Duchess of Malfi came about and I wasn’t expecting to get the role because I had never seen a black duchess. So I went through the audition process, which was very rigorous and thankfully I ended up getting the role.

L&S: The Duchess of Malfi has historically been played by white actresses, including legends like Judi Dench. How does it feel to break barriers and be the first black actor in the role?
JI: They are all fantastic actresses who played the role prior and they’re all women I grew up ad- miring long before I got the role.

I found it liberating to bring my lived experience to the role as they did in their careers.

L&S: Do you think the British theatre industry is making sig- nificant strides to be more in- clusive on the stage and behind the scenes?
JI: I think we can be doing more, especially behind the scenes.
We ultimately need balance and I think that is what we aspire for because with that you can get a true world view.

L&S: What have been some of the challenges of taking on the lead role?
JI: The challenges are leading a show. Until you are actually in that position, you are not aware of what it is to truly lead a group of performers.

Another challenge for me, especially as a black woman, was to be able to celebrate that I can use my voice.

As women, we are very used to navigating the space and our voices and it sounds bizarre to say that is a challenge, but that was something I wasn’t used to.
So the nervousness of that is using that voice and using it to be creative – it was a very interesting journey to go on.

L&S: What can the audience expect from watching The Duchess of Malfi?
JI: You can expect to find a real theatrical experience, from the music, the movement and the characters we portray.

I feel that there is something really exhilarating and thrilling about our production.
It speaks to a modern audience and is incredibly provocative, but you can also expect to see real people on stage.

Duchess of Malfi: Director’s Cut
LIFE AND Style caught up with Maria Aberg, the director of The Duchess Of Malfi, to find out what she thought Joan Iyiola would bring to the role and how she became a theatre director.

Life & Style: In 2014, you directed John Webster’s The White Devil for the RSC. This time you are again directing another of his plays, The Duchess of Malfi. Is there something about Webster’s work that particularly appeals to you?

Maria Aberg: There are so many things – The Duchess of Malfi is unapologetically political and incredibly theatrical, which is quite a tricky thing to pull off.

It’s bold, it’s lyrical and it’s so emotional – when the Duchess has to say farewell to her husband, doubting that she will ever see him again, is incredible.

She is left alone on stage for a moment after he has gone and she says ‘My laurel is all withered’ sort of to herself, which breaks my heart a little every time I hear it.

L&S: Joan Iyiola is playing the title role. What do you think she will bring to the part?

MA: I first worked with Joan when she played Zanche in The White Devil, and I knew already then that she was extraordinary.

She has incredible power, but also a great deal of warmth and humour. And she has both the status and the skill required to play someone like the Duchess. I am very excited to work with her again.

L&S: How did you get into directing, and what other pro- ductions have you got in the pipeline?

MA: It is all I have ever wanted to do. I got into theatre as a child and once I discovered directing as a teenager, I never looked back.

After The Duchess of Malfi, I’m directing the musical Little Shop of Horrors at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park – quite a different piece.

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