“Playing any Shakespeare character when you are black…always challenges the idea of what is acceptable”

by Kelly Kanayama 

This two-part interview series came about after the Royal Shakespeare Company offered us the chance to speak with their actors about their work. I started out by chatting to Clarence Smith, a veteran of stage, film and TV who plays Albany in the RSC’s King Lear.

Thank you so much for doing this.

It’s my pleasure.

You’re playing Albany in King Lear currently. Can you talk a little bit about the character and your approach to playing him, for readers who aren’t familiar with the play?

Albany is married to Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril. And in our production, where we’ve got to thus far, is that really it’s a political marriage, a marriage of convenience, because Albany, in ye olde England, was up in the North, i.e. the Scottish Highlands. So a bit like what’s occurring in Britain at the moment, about trying to make the alliance and keeping it a part of Great Britain, to unite the kingdom. So Lear has done this with Albany and Cornwall, who is obviously more in the south, and is married to Regan [Lear’s second daughter]. And really, Albany as a character is the moral compass within the play. He brings, or at least attempts to bring, a moral integrity to his marriage as well as to his political allegiance.

Is there a lot of emphasis in the staging and production on this aspect of Albany and Goneril’s marriage or this political aspect of Albany’s role?

Well, I think that Greg Doran, our director, is exploring the kind of political climate we’re in at the moment, what with Brexit and England leaving the EU. I suppose we are bringing in an element of it, i.e. people that are displaced, given that the play talks about the dividing up of a kingdom and the idea of what it means if you aren’t part of the status quo. If you’re outside of that, then what does it mean to belong? I suppose it’s topical, then; it’s poignant that we should be doing Lear with the backdrop of Brexit, so that, as I said, it’s not necessarily what we’ve done, although we have done it, but at the time, Albany and Cornwall were lands that needed to be allied to the king of England. And that just happens to fall into the political landscape of where we are now.

We literally started rehearsal the week after the vote for us to leave the EU. Suddenly this play took on a whole resonance of its own, and I think that Greg felt that it was – is it art mimicking life, or life mimicking art? Either way, that’s where the play at this moment in time has found itself. Without giving away too much, he’s exploring this idea of displaced people outside of the ruling class.

That sounds fantastic! As Albany is one of those roles between the young juvenile lead and “elder statesman of theatre”, how do you feel about playing him at this point in your career?

It’s an interesting character because within the play, as I said, what has happened is that between Goneril and Albany, they have no issue. They have not had any children. And we’ve decided that they’ve been married for ten years. So something isn’t right. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – I’m doing Hamlet at the moment [laughs], but something is definitely rotten in the state of Albany. Their relationship is fractured, and potentially that is why Lear has also decided that if his eldest daughter hasn’t produced an issue, the middle daughter Regan has only recently been married – three years, shall we say – and his youngest daughter is about to be married; rather than there being, not civil war, but any kind of disquiet, by dividing the kingdom equally, which he perceives as a good idea, then he can circumvent any potential ructions between the siblings and their husbands.

Clarence as Albany in King Lear
Clarence as Albany in King Lear

But then Albany, as we know, is the one who ends up taking over at the end of the play. I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on that in view of the current sociopolitical backdrop of this production.

I mean, it’s very, very interesting, because the young Labour leader, Chuka Ummuna – he did put himself forward, didn’t he, as a Labour leader? And then for some reason he felt that it wasn’t the right time for him. But I kind of smelt that really it’s about what’s in the background of his personal life that he wasn’t prepared to have exposed. Now as a black British man, the issue about black consciousness and also assimilating into this society, we have yet to really have significant black players in the political spectrum. We’ve had agitators, but in terms of the main political parties, we’ve kind of just been on the periphery.

And what’s interesting is having someone like Don Warrington play Lear with Talawa. What it does is it gives you the black British experience, which is very specific, in the modern context. By having someone like Lear being played by Don, it really had a place within the history of the black experience within these isles, within this island. And playing someone like Albany, or actually, a lot of the time, playing any Shakespeare character when you are black – I can’t speak about anyone else; I can only speak about my experience, but for me, it always challenges the idea of what is acceptable.

When I say “acceptable”, I mean what is easily digestible. What’s easily digestible is if you are playing an assistant to somebody, or maybe a servant to somebody, or a minor role to somebody. What tends to happen is that it challenges people’s perceptions of how they see their world. And for me, playing Albany or any Shakespeare character, all that does is it gives our black British experience – which goes back hundreds of years here – it gives it a context. So that’s how I feel, and that’s how I’ve felt about coming here. The first time I ever played at Stratford was in 1991.

Who’d you play?

I played the king of France. And that was very, very challenging, because then there weren’t many black people working within the company at that time. Also, at one particular performance, someone heckled me.

What? Why?! I mean, we know why, but…

I think – I don’t think, I know – what had happened was, in 1991 the demographic was certainly different from what it is today. So I was playing the king of France, and a French woman was in the audience. And she objected to the notion that her king of France should be black. In her historical context, it was anathema to her. So she literally said, “No, no, no! This is outrageous! Shame! Shame on you!” Back then it was a big do. The Guardian picked it up as an article, but interestingly enough, I was never asked my opinion or how I felt about it. They actually came and spoke to the white actors in the company who were on stage at the time. I kind of felt like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “Hold on, who’s this? What’s happened?”

That was then. Now, the way things have evolved, and they still have a ways to go, but I have to say, the RSC have championed breaking down those stereotypes, any kind of idea that there’s something that’s beyond one’s imagination, and our imagination is limitless, isn’t it? If people like David Oyelowo had been here – he played Prince Hal1 – now I’m here at the moment playing King Claudius in Hamlet, and Paapa is also here playing Hamlet. So in a way the idea of colourblind casting, particularly in the theatre, I think is a bit passe now, because the actors that have been produced here, that have left here and are now being celebrated in America and all over the world – they’ve played here; we’ve done it. So, you know, big up to the RSC.

You brought up Paapa Essiedu earlier, and this is the second time you’re playing his counterpart, I suppose you could say. You were Claudius to his Hamlet and, now, Albany to his Edmund in Lear.

It’s interesting, because the roles are reversed, aren’t they? In Hamlet, he’s dealing with the loss of his father, but he’s also the barometer of goodness. He’s just a young man who’s found out that his father’s been murdered by his uncle, and what the hell’s he going to do about that? Whereas as Edmund in Lear, Paapa is anything but that. He’s the archetypal Machiavellian; when you talk about the Machiavellian kind of mindset, you would always go to Edmund. It’s very interesting to have that kind of mirror held up, and suddenly we are on different sides of that line now.

That’s the great thing about acting, particularly in the theatre: you are afforded the opportunity to play from a prince to a pauper to a king to, I don’t know, playing Edmund. That’s a great experience and it gives you more scope than film and TV, at least here in Britain. In the echelons of theatre here, you have a real variety of opportunities and we are fortunate enough to realise that between myself and Paapa, working together for six months.

As King Claudius in Hamlet, with Tanya Moodie as Gertrude
Clarence as King Claudius in Hamlet, with Tanya Moodie as Gertrude

Do you think, given the way things are going, that we might see a black King Lear in the next 20 years at the RSC? Of course, we’d have to wait for the RSC to have an actor on board who’s old enough…

Do you know what? You hit the nail on the head there, because we always say it’s about the long game, particularly in this industry as an actor, black or white. I understand white actors have it equally as hard, but they have a wider range of roles, so they can kind of keep on dipping their toe in. Whereas for a black actor, it can be really, really narrow. And if you can’t sustain yourself and you can’t pay your bills, and you don’t actually feel that there’s any career – the C-word – that you’re able to develop, what tends to happen is that usually, it’s good when you’re young, but when you start getting older – you know, ask black women. I’m not a woman, obviously, but I have a lot of friends who are black actresses. And it’s a real challenge to sustain yourself. You might go from playing the juve lead – and I think this was a question you were asking earlier on – to playing the nurse. Then are there any other characters that you’re able to play?

That’s a problem in Shakespeare as a whole, isn’t it? There aren’t that many good speaking roles for women.

There aren’t that many roles; indeed. In our production of Hamlet we did a great job, but you realise that, God, Gertrude only has one scene. It’s the closet scene, where Hamlet kills Polonius and Gertrude says, “You’ve cleft my heart in twain”. She’s not even kind of sporadically put in; she’s very thin on the ground. So therefore, as an actor of colour, a black actor, particularly in the theatre, how do you sustain yourself? What are the roles? Talent has a great deal to do with it, but also who you’re connected with. I’ve always had the type of agent that is able to get me into the room. And then I’m able to do what I can do. But if you haven’t got that type of agent who can get you into the room, it can be like a maze. We’re all trying to find our way to the centre, but some of us can’t even get into it.

It is a real challenge to remain and have that longevity and have a career, to be afforded the opportunities that my peers have had – people that I’ve trained with, who are white, who have developed and, you know, one role leads to another which leads to another. A lot of the time as a black actor – again, I’m speaking about myself specifically – there’s a lot of time saying no, because I don’t necessarily want to go out to the back of beyond. And there’s nothing wrong with going out to the back of beyond, but if you’ve been playing in high-profile roles and theatres, you have an idea of where you want to go. That’s a challenge, and I suppose you back it up by doing film and TV and holding out for an American job and getting paid a reasonable wedge, and then coming back.

I was actually on my way to America and then this opportunity came up, and it was just too good to refuse. You might say, “Why were you on the way to America?” I would work wherever the work is, and my plan is to be able to pick up some work in the States and then come back and do a theatre gig like this. But you’ve got to afford to be able to sit back and say no. You need money to be able to say, “Thank you for the offer, but I’ll pass on that one.”

How would you get to that point – besides talent, of course? Is it mainly through a good agent and networking, or are there other important factors at work as well?

I think it’s slightly different now, given that I’m slightly older than most. You’re creating your own work; you’re having conversations about who’s doing what, and you’re trying to liaise and keep a network of people that you’re able to still be creative and productive with. I often see people say, “Are you working?” and I say, “I’m working all the time.” Just because you don’t necessarily see me on stage or on TV, don’t think I’m just sitting on my hands and doing nothing.

I suppose what I was saying earlier is that younger actors now tend to be more immediately into film and TV, and everyone’s looking for the super break. That’s all well and good if you happen to realize that, but also it is about your training, it is about developing and harnessing and honing your skill with language, with thoughts, with ideas, and then being able to pull all of that together, whether you’re doing radio, whether you’re doing theatre, or whether you’re doing film or TV.

Stage acting is my background, that’s my backbone, but as I said I’ve been off the theatre for five years because I made a decision that I was going to do film and TV. Coming back to the RSC and playing Claudius is a real challenge. It’s a real challenge to bring the performance up to a level that fills a thousand-seater but doesn’t feel like you’re playing pantomime. If you spend a lot of time playing the small screen or for camera – we were doing a scene [for Hamlet], and our director Simon Godwin said, “Very good, Clarence…if a little De Niro-esque.” And I thought, “I’ll accept that!” I know you’re saying I need to be bigger, but hey, that’s a really great starting point. That’s the greatest thing about theatre, because it is like going back to school: I mean the school of ideas, the school of life, the way you have to use your voice and be able to get inside an idea and really communicate it.

1In addition to playing Prince Hal, David Oyelowo was also the first black actor to play Henry VI at the RSC back in 2000.

King Lear plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 15 October, at the Barbican from 10 November – 23 December, and will be broadcast to select cinemas from 12 October. For more information, go here.

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Kelly Kanayama is the Administrative Manager/Editorial Assistant at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and xoJane. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.

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One thought on “Sustaining yourself as an actor of colour: interview with the RSC’s Clarence Smith

  1. I saw a black Demetrius 20 years ago when I was in secondary school – the RSC doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stratford – and I and all my classmates were initially surprised, but we loved it!


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