Alexandra Afryea – who has starred in Silent Witness, Care and Emmerdale – plays the leading role as Lady Macbeth in the corporate adaptation of Macbeth. Set in 1987 during London’s stock market crash, the play explores themes of race and class in the midst of greed and genocide. Before her performance, I was able to speak with Afryea about her experience in the production, being an actress, as well as her latest film roles.
How did you get the opportunity to be a part of the Macbeth production?
Alexandra Afryea (AA): My agent, McLean-Williams, asked me if I’d like to audition for the production as it was a short Spring tour with a longer run in the Autumn. So I looked at the dates, the venues and the rehearsal schedule, which was at Proteus’ Creation Space in Basingstoke. Also I love Shakespeare and take any opportunity to do it and I decided to go ahead with the audition. It was a workshop audition with 13 of us in total and I have to say it was a great experience. It was a 2-hour workshop where we played games, improvised and had a lot of fun. What’s interesting is that we weren’t actually given a specific role. We were told that we were auditioning to be part of the ensemble cast, so I had no idea I was auditioning for the role of Lady Macbeth. In a way I think this was a favorable approach, as otherwise we may have been all been a bit less free, knowing we were up against each other for that specific iconic role. So, of course, I was delighted when I was asked to be Lady Macbeth.
What is your opinion on Macbeth being adapted as a corporate thriller?
AA: When it was first explained to me I did sort of think, err [laughs]. I literally had that face, ‘err’ because I thought, oh yeah, I get it, but I don’t really see it. It wasn’t until we started rehearsals that the penny dropped for me. We sat down and talked during the week of R&D (Research and Development) and our director, Mary Swan, explained how the concept would work. Then during rehearsals we’d begin to see the costumes and the set and everything became clearer and clearer. It all came together and then I’m like, yeah this so works, and it absolutely does.
What differentiates Lady Macbeth in a corporate setting to Lady Macbeth in the classical play?
AA: Well, in terms of her as a character in this setting, it is her husband who is involved in the corporate world, and she is a (desperate) housewife. I suppose if our Lady Macbeth of the ‘80s was set nowadays she would definitely be a housewife on a reality show… The Housewives of Macbeth! However, in this setting we have Macbeth working in the city and staying at his luxury pad along the waterfront, and they have this big manor house in the country, somewhere in Surrey. She’s alone in this family home, bought ready to be filled with children, but of course their child dies so she slowly going mad in this very big house. With our Lady Macbeth, it’s all about the isolation. We also looked at the postpartum depression after childbirth, not having any support network and dealing with bereavement.
Are there any similarities?
AA: Well, at the end of the day, it’s still her words, we don’t change any of her words. It’s the same language that Shakespeare wrote. It’s the packaging that’s different. The play is abridged so it has been edited, and a few cheeky lines have been added here and there to make sense of scene changes. But we haven’t re-written the play it’s still very much Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
What’s your favourite line of dialogue in the play?
AA: Oh, that’s interesting, that’s a good question. There are so many which you hear that excite the ear! One which I think is great, “Stars, hide your fires”. There are some amazing lines, which you hear and think, wow, this guy knew how to write, right? [laughs]. It’s no surprise that hundreds of years later we’re still studying him and watching his work, because his language is great.
Give me an example of your biggest challenge in this production and whether you overcame them?
AA: What I found interesting is the reaction of people when I say I’m playing Lady Macbeth. It ranges from “Wow that’s a great part” to “Oh my gosh she’s such an intense character”. Someone said to me, ‘That’s a great way to be introduced: this is Lady Macbeth’. Yet, it was people’s reactions that make me think, ‘Should I be worrying about this?’ Because I was thinking, this is exciting, this is cool, it’s Lady Macbeth – it’s a great part and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into it. But to be honest one of my fears was that I wasn’t going to have all the lines memorised in time. So I put a lot of work in before reaching the rehearsal room. And it was a safe rehearsal room with our director, Mary. The fears I did have I brought to her and we worked through them together.
The production has taken on such a diverse cast, how do you think the audience will react to this?
AA: In terms of this being a culturally diverse cast, I don’t think the audience would have any issue with it. If they do then that’s quite sad for them because we are all worthy actors, which, I think, will give a great performance. Race shouldn’t matter, we’re able to play the role and do the part as good as the next person.
What has been your favourite moment being a part of this play?
AA: I tell you what, just the whole rehearsal experience. Getting together and working as a team. It really is an ensemble production. For example, for our physical and vocal warm-ups in the morning we go around the group and each do a new movement. So we’re very much learning from each other. Jessica Lucia Andrade, who plays Malcolm among other characters, specialises in circus skills and physical theatre. She’s was a gymnast and became an aerialist and can do amazing things up on the silks. She gave us some great warm-ups. Also Umar Butt, who’s an artistic associate of ARC, Stockton, came with some fabulous vocal warm-ups as well. So it really has been a great collaborative effort and that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most; working with this incredible team.
Do you have any other interests besides acting?
AA: I actually love sewing. I’d love to call myself a seamstress. I love sewing and creating things. I haven’t been able to get my sewing machine out so a while, but I’ve done a corsetry course and made a corset, a bra and some underwear, as well as bags, curtains and things like that. I tell you what, I drool when I watch The Great British Sewing Bee! I’d love to be in that workshop with all that fabric and equipment, that would be fabulous. It’s a bit like making cocktails, unless you’ve have great equipment, like good ice, and all those other little bits, you’re kind of like muddling along. It sort of separates the amateurs from the professionals right? But I’d love to have a proper sewing room. It’s on my wish list.
Maybe you could sew some of the costumes for any of the plays you’re a part of too.
AA: Well I tell you what, our costume and set designer, Katharine Heath, has put me in some beautiful clothes. I have this red dress with a hood, which is kind of Grace Jones-esque. It’s simply divine and I love, love, love that dress. I’ve paid special attention to the cut and finish and think I could actually make it. Although I might not get it perfect the first time. But I have actually helped make the costumes for a play. It was for production of Twelfth Night in Los Angeles, where I played the role of Maria. We were up to the early hours and it was a great experience.
What other productions or TV shows will you be starring in this year?
AA: I’m in a film, which will be released on Netflix, called Six Underground, directed by Michael Bay. He’s the director of Bad Boys with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, which was actually his first feature film. Michael has a very distinct style, which they call ‘Bayhem’, and it really was. I was flown out to Abu Dhabi, and was in The United Arab Emirates for a week. It was such an amazing experience for me as an actor; to be staying in seven-star hotels working with an A-list Hollywood Director. The film stars Corey Hawkins and, although I didn’t have direct scenes with him, we spoke several times as our trailers were close by. On the way back to London I watched Blackkklansman on the plane and Corey came on-screen as Kwame Ture. When I saw him I almost blurted out, “Oh my gosh, I’ve just been working with him!” [laughs]. You could say I had delayed star struck. If only I’d realised when speaking to him that he’d worked with the phenomenal director, Spike Lee! Now that is on my wish list!
Let’s go back in time to when you first started out as an actress, what was your first professional role?
AA: My first professional role… I can’t remember. I do remember the first time I went on stage having memorised lines and being in costume though. It was a college production in Nottingham, the play was called Waiting for Godot. My character was a male character called Estragon. That was it for me: playing a male character, with heightened and very stylised language. I was like, wow this is great, I’m hooked!
Was that the moment you got that feeling like ‘this is where I should be’?
AA: I suppose it was back in school. As I applied to a performing arts college, so it must have been a serious interest. I sought help from the school’s careers advisor about becoming an actress, and they said they would get some information. However, she came back the following week with information about becoming an Au Pair in America! And I thought, oh right, I tell you I want to act and you invite me to go to another country to look after stranger’s children? She didn’t tell me anything about drama schools, BTEC’s or even Youth Theatre. It was a friend of mine who was at dance college in London, who told me about the performing arts course in Nottingham.
What advice would you give upcoming Black British actors starting out in the theatre or television industry?
Don’t shy away from anything and don’t think that anything is bigger than you. Although the caveat is: refrain from things which are not in line with your core values. And don’t be afraid of turning things down if it is. That’s important. But know you can achieve anything you want to. Do the things that seem scary because it helps to overcome fears. A lot of people fear Shakespeare, and think, ’oh no’, but think, ‘oh yes Shakespeare’, absolutely Shakespeare! Especially now as there are so many great adaptations being performed on the stage as well as being shown in the cinema. For example, currently as the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, is the all-female, women of colour production of Richard II – go see it! I watched it before started rehearsals for Macbeth. It actually gave me that extra lift confirming it is all possible. When you see changes like this happening in society find ways to get involved. You also have to make it happen. If you’re not being seen for things, make your own work. These days people have YouTube channels showcasing their work. You can film things on smart phones, go down to the library to find plays or even download scripts online. Just practise, practise, practise. You are your own business, so you can’t be complacent about things. It’s all about renewing and expanding your skills.