Chuk Iwuji: ‘My Hamlet is an ugly beast about to be unleashed’ | The Knowledge Dynasty

Chuk Iwuji: ‘My Hamlet is an ugly beast about to be unleashed’

A stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Iwuji is finally playing Hamlet, in a production inspired by Black Lives Matter and which is being performed in homeless shelters and prisons.

For the Nigerian-born British actor Chuk Iwuji, to be or not to be wasnt remotely the question when it came to playing Hamlet. He has pursued the role ever since his days as a glorified spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company, watching from the wings as celebrated actors spoke the famous soliloquies. As the ambassador Cornelius, Iwuji had one line, shared with another character.

Hes since gone on to lengthier Shakespeare parts: Henry VI in the history plays (a role he toured with for more than two years), Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Buckingham in Richard III, Edgar in King Lear. But Hamlet had always eluded him until New Yorks Public Theater asked if hed star in a Mobile Unit production. This bus and truck version, directed by Patricia McGregor, cuts the tragedy to under two hours and tours it to prisons, homeless shelters and senior centers before it returns to the Public for a three-week run.

Iwuji, who will soon return to England to star in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre opposite Ruth Wilson, spoke about how playing Hamlet has changed his craft and maybe his life.

How did you become interested in theater?

I did theater as a kid in Nigeria. But I didnt think anything of it. When I moved to boarding school in England, you have the athletes and the non-athletes. And I love sports, I did my rugby and my track, so theater went out the window. But when I found myself heading for law and economics, there was a side of me that quietly panicked. At Yale, I decided to start experimenting with theater again.

Do you have a particular affinity for Shakespeare?

Yes, I do. As soon as I became an actor and started accidentally doing Shakespeare, it became something that I loved. People seem to believe I know what Im doing! I have never been worried about who Im up against when I go in for a Shakespeare audition. I dont feel intimidated by it, I feel excited by it.

Something Ill never experience again: Chuk Iwuji as Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. Photograph: Publicity image

How did it feel to live with Shakespeare so long when you spent years playing Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company?

Unbelievable. It was hard. It was non-stop. We would rehearse something, open it, start rehearsal while were running. We had dozens of roles in our head. One Guardian article started by saying shed interviewed us at the beginning and the end and the first line was, They look much older. Regardless of how tired we were, we knew the immense responsibility that was on our shoulders. We were going to deliver. It was exhilarating, something Ill never experience again.

Does it feel different to play Shakespeare in America?

I do feel there is a real reverence for Shakespeare and reverence is a good thing, but it can also be a very dangerous thing. There is sometimes a very thin veil of intimidation that has to be broken through when Shakespeare is being done in this country. And I think Americans like to applaud more. They like to give a standing ovation.

Have you always wanted to play Hamlet?

Yes, for a very long time. And I was pretty certain it wasnt going to happen. Ive always wanted to understand what the big deal is.

So they approached me to do it and I was like, of course! Yes! I started working through the speeches the five great speeches and I realized that every speech takes you through the whole emotional canon. Every speech, you have to go through it all. Theres anger, theres remorse, theres fear, theres passion. Its not only the greatest role Ive played but also the most exhaustive role Ive played.

Christopher Ryan Grant, left, and Iwuji: Were holding a mirror up to nature for the audience and theyre also holding it up for us. Photograph: Joan Marcus/2016 Joan Marcus

What sets your Hamlet apart?

Patricia McGregors vision is to reflect the Black Lives Matter question. I actually phoned Patricia and I was like, Look, are you sure Im the guy you want to play this Hamlet? I know where youre going with this, the anger on the streets of America, the disappointment. Am I the right guy? Because Im not sure I embody that. Im not African American. I went to boarding school.

She said to me, The very fact that were having this conversation is exactly why youre the right guy for it. That guy who finally throws a brick at the police, he doesnt want to be that. Hes not born that way. That is Hamlet. He doesnt want to be a revenger. Hes saying, Dont make me have to do this.

I hope this Hamlet shows that. Hamlet has become this status performance, this cerebral thing. People have forgotten that at the core of it often is this thriller, this ugly, relentless beast thats about to be unleashed. Thats my Hamlet.

Does the play feel different when youre performing in a prison or a homeless shelter?

Being on the road has made me realize the true difference between being a storyteller and being an actor. Often we want to be actors when actually our job is to be storytellers. The audiences, theyre listening. Theyre cheering when Claudius gets killed, theyre crying for Ophelia.

On this tour the nature of performing has changed for me. When I go on to do the next play and the next play, its all going to be about trying to find that sense of storytelling. Inasmuch as my art is my life, it has changed my life.

Youre told every performance should be fresh, it should always feel new, all that stuff. Youre told it theoretically. But to be in the Mobile Unit is to experience that happening organically. Every room is different. Sometimes the conditions are different. Sometimes the inmates dont want to be there and you have to win them over. Sometimes theyre so there with you. It changes your delivery. It changes why youre saying it.

Were holding a mirror up to nature for these guys and theyre also holding it up for us we see the humanity thats in front of us. Were giving them this gift, but Id argue that theyre giving just as much back.

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