An interview with actor Akiya Henry
Part two in a series of interviews by Angelique Jones.
Akiya Henry as Lady Macbeth
“That’s what’s exciting about Kit’s filmmaking: he is allowing the audience to be as much an active participant in the storytelling as the actor,” Akiya Henry tells us, “I want more of that on screen!”
Following on from a conversation with our Lady Macbeth which delved into the art of projecting a powerful and multi-faceted woman on screen, Akiya shares her experiences working with Director Kit Monkman, the freedom of acting in front of a green-screen and why Macbeth simply represents “filmmaking at its best.”
Macbeth offers a new and immersive experience of Shakespeare. It gives audiences the power to interpret the story in their own unique way; “it doesn’t patronise them,” Akiya states, instead “it allows them the space to be able to connect with their own intellect and their imagination.”
It’s this universality of Shakespeare’s work that makes it so relevant and adaptable today, “he presents us with is a world where everybody is human,” and sets a stage that welcomes people from all walks of life. What could be more relatable in film than this?
We discuss what the explorative nature of Macbeth means to Akiya, and to its diverse audiences, and how ultimately, it’s already inspiring a whole generation of viewers, and perhaps even a whole new genre.
Angelique Jones: Shakespeare’s audiences are typically aware that they are experiencing “theatre”. This film is a very theatrical film, blending both worlds in what Monkman refers to as an invitation into the participatory, co-creative experience of live theatre. How do you think this intent is expressed in the film?
Akiya Henry: One of the things he manages to do really well with this film is he allows the audience to feel like they are really part of the action. A lot of films can do that, but I think you get that experience more so in theatre […] I think what’s beautiful about Kit’s film, about being able to merge theatre and film, is the audience’s experience of it […] In all of Macbeth’s soliloquys by the fabulous Mark Rowley (Macbeth), the audience feel like they are in his head, that they are seeing what he is seeing, because there are no distractions.
That’s what’s exciting about Kit’s filmmaking, what he is allowing the audience to do is to be as much an active participant in the storytelling as the actor […] I want more of that on screen.
Lady Macbeth welcomes the arrival of King Duncan
It’s that whole problem with films that are just spoon-feeding you, if you just take it as it is, then you lose your own self to it; your own independence. On the other hand, if you’re active then you bring yourself into it and you have a sort of shared ownership. It’s what’s special about this film, I got something completely new from it, and I forgot that it was “Shakespeare language,” even though it was so obviously Shakespeare.
Exactly. A friend of mine who came to see the film said, “I hate Shakespeare, with every inch of my being. But when I came to see this film, I understood every element and everything that was happening right before my eyes.” I think that is an amazing testimony to the brilliance of Kit Monkman and his vision. It’s like what you’re saying, that you as an audience member were just allowed to be in it and to take from that what you will. I feel like now […] it’s hard because it can be a sensory overload… we’ve got to allow audiences to be able to connect with the intellect that they already have. Therefore, we shouldn’t be spoon-feeding them, we have to give them space to be able to fill in the blanks, and I think that’s what this Macbeth does really well. It gives the audience the space, it doesn’t patronise them; because of its simplicity it allows them the space to be able to connect with their own intellect and their imagination. It’s really exciting […] the type of work that I want to continue to do is the work that stimulates people to think, and to connect with oneself and to not be afraid of that.
I know you’ve previously said that filming Macbeth felt as though you were back in the rehearsal room, and so it came naturally to you to perform in a space where there were little to no props or mood lighting. Given there was such a strong focus on your performances, what was this like performing entirely in front of a green screen?
I absolutely loved it. It literally felt like I was in a rehearsal space, and what was lovely was that all we had was our bodies, our voices, and a few props. I didn’t ever feel like I was being told how to be or how to feel because there was no scenery, we weren’t on location it was just being able to connect with your fellow actor. I absolutely loved it. My first love (Akiya is a talented triple threat, who acts, sings and dances) is theatre because of the live element of it. But also, because every day can be different, and you get to have a real kind of fun personal relationship with the people you’re playing with on stage, as well as your audience. That’s what it felt like shooting on green-screen […] Kim, who was dressing the set […] did such an amazing job, and it was just so lovely because once you had a prop on stage, it actually mattered […] As soon as something came onto the set, it had a relevance […] it was almost as important as the actor that you’re playing to. That for me was really exciting and quite invigorating in a way because it meant that you weren’t taking anything in your space for granted, as you do sometimes I think when you’re on location shooting. I absolutely loved it because it didn’t feel terrifying, it actually felt really liberating.
Akiya and Mark Rowley on set
What do you have to say about the universality of Shakespeare’s text and its relevance in 21st century Britain?
Every time I read a Shakespeare play […] I think this is my world! I know a person like that! In Twelfth Night, the uncle, Sir Toby Belch, is brilliant, but he loves a tipple, he’s a joker, and he makes lots of crazy mistakes. But he is a loveable drunk […] I know that person; I come out of the station at Brixton, and I’m talking to that person, he’s right there, and we have a great conversation.
This is what’s so brilliant about Shakespeare, is that in every one of his plays, there is a character that anyone can connect to. For me, especially in terms of being a woman, I feel like Shakespeare writes so brilliantly for women because actually some of the most powerful characters in Shakespeare are women.
To be able to give those characters and those women so much complexity, so much beauty, and so much vitality, and so much strength, literally in one play, I think is absolutely incredible.
Today, for me when […] I’m reading Taming of the Shrew […] I’m reading this character and I’m thinking yeah girl, why should she be oppressed by any man? Yes! Go and kick some ass, go and tell that man to F off, because actually, he doesn’t deserve you. Of course, because this is the society that I live in […] those women exist […] I just feel, with Shakespeare, what he does so brilliantly, is he makes every single character in his plays, even the characters you think are an arse hole [make you feel that…] there is something in you that you like and you don’t know what it is, it’s annoying but you like it […] That’s the power of Shakespeare, what he presents us with is a world where everybody is human.
[There’s] everything, incest, love, abandonment, heartbreak, power, territory, murder, we can never escape it in the world that we live in. Ever […] it’s what we’re dealing with on a daily basis […] All of these things are in his plays in the clearest way […] That’s why, when anybody says Shakespeare was a prophet, he was ahead of his time, his work is timeless, it really, really is […] everything that he speaks about has so much relevancy. Even more now today than it did when it was written.
When I did a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a group of young people came to watch the show and I asked how they found it […] they said, “listen miss yeah, I got it yeah because basically it’s just like hip hop.” They’re listening to the verse and the reason why they’re connecting and understanding it is because it’s a language that they’re very aware of in their day to day lives…it’s the music they listen to in terms of spoken word, hip-hop, jazz, grime – this is what they’re listening to. Their ears are more attuned to it when its presented to them in the right way than it is to you or I […] Shakespeare was writing hip hop!
I choose work based off [knowing that I…] have a moral responsibility in terms of the stories that I tell. Therefore, me playing Lady Macbeth is not just about somebody watching it and saying, “I can do that, when I didn’t think I could.” It’s also about saying “so I do have a place in society […] and I do matter because that person on the screen is making me realise that I matter. So therefore, let me go out into the world and let me matter.”
Akiya receiving advice from Judith Buchanan, Co-writer and Shakespeare Advisor on Macbeth
Who would you say the audience is for Monkman’s Macbeth?
The audience for this film is everyone […] from young to old. My niece watched the trailer and she’s 9 and she got really excited by it. Not just because her aunty Kiki is in it, but she got excited by some of the imagery and her response to it was really incredible. People that have seen it, who are a hell of a lot older, have completely connected to it.
Whatever ethnicity you are, gender, sexuality – I think it is for everyone. That’s the beauty of this film, it’s not alienating. It’s embracing. It’s embracing the society that we live in and it’s embracing the people that want to connect to Shakespeare’s work.
It’s also embracing the people that are afraid of Shakespeare’s work too, because It’s making it really accessible for them.
Kit might be a pioneer… I don’t think Kit’s even realised that he’s making this statement with the film, but what it’s saying is that everybody matters in this space. Your mind and your imaginations matter in this space. I think that’s an incredible impact to make on a group of people from one film. I think this film is for everyone.
What is the most exciting thing for you about this film?
The multicultural aspect of it. I think being able to tell a story from a perspective that people aren’t expecting […] being able to tell a story from a perspective that we don’t necessarily get to see very often on screen, is incredibly powerful. To have it be told in the most honest, loyal way to Shakespeare with that perspective in mind is […] again, very powerful […] having people come and see it from lots of different backgrounds and still be able to connect to it because they see themselves […] is incredible […] I don’t think I’ve seen a film like that in a very long time.
Then there’s the creativity […] the beauty and the brutality of the piece. The love that you get to see on screen between two people that really care about each other. The destruction that that brings for a relationship. There’s so much in this film to get excited about. If I did have to say one thing… the choices that people have made to make Macbeth relevant today…that’s really exciting for me.
The Macbeths sit uneasily on the throne
Do you see this type of theatrical cinema as a new way of bringing theatre to wider audiences? What effects do you think this will have on the theatre industry?
I hope and pray that it creates a whole new genre of theatrical filmmaking because it should. There’s a hunger for it […] and as you know theatre can be quite expensive for people […] I think a lot of people are deterred from theatre, not just because they don’t think it’s a place for them but also because it’s not financially viable.
What excites me about the fusion of theatre and film is that it allows the audience access, and even if that is happening in a theatre, if we can give them that access, and make it inexpensive, that is great […] I think if we can start breaking down those barriers where there’s one place for film and one place for theatre […] we’re in for a very exciting future […] Kit might be a pioneer […] it’s going to help people to develop a technical language of how to be able to translate theatre onto screen and screen into theatre. I think it’s great.
Why should people watch it?
It’s innovative, inspirational, multicultural, it’s poetic, it’s accessible, it’s Shakespeare presented in a whole new light. It’s allowing the audience to live and breathe and become one with all of the characters’ they’re connecting to on screen without realising it. I’ve got to give a huge big up to the crew; I don’t know where I would be on that screen if it wasn’t for them. You can see the final product is absolutely incredible. That’s not just down to the incredible talent you’re seeing on screen, it’s down to Kit and his amazing creative team and the space that he created for us to play.
I also think people need to watch this film because we’re living in a time where we’re being told how to think and how to feel. We’re living in a time where we’re being presented with some of the worst stereotypes […] What this film does brilliantly is it flips the script.
It says this is how you may perceive the world, but actually this is the reality […] see it and be challenged and be excited, be taken on a beautiful, wonderful, emotional journey. See some of the most amazing, brilliant actors of our time right now… see filmmaking at its best.