A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes the fresh adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe is a wicked new comedy set in a world of millionaires and mega-churches that rocks the foundations of trust, faith and redemption. It follows Indhu Rubasingham’s (artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre) critically-acclaimed production of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand in 2014.
Given just days to live, multi-millionaire Archibald Organdy (Wil Johnson) rejects costly experimental treatment and opts to face his end surrounded by his loving family. His fate sealed, Archibald awaits his day of reckoning. However things could be about to change.
Arriving in Atlanta from the deep, deep South, flamboyant Archbishop Tardimus Toof (Lucian Msamati), a prophet, preacher and part-time masseur promises to absolve Archibald’s sins and heal his disease. But his family suspect there’s more to this devout healer than faith, virtue and snakeskin shoes…
Adjoa Andoh who plays Peaches former exotic dancer and Archibald’s fiancée, is a woman with an acting career spanning over 30 years in theatre, television, the big screen and radio. If you are not sure of the name you will definitely recognise her face from TV programs such as Casualty, Scott and Bailey, Doctor Who and films Adulthood (2008) and Invictus (2008) starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
As one of the most pleasant and effortless interviews I have done, I spoke to Andoh about her character Peaches, the many roles she has played over the years and the affect each acting genre has played on honing her skills and craft.
It’s so lovely to speak to you after watching the play. I really enjoyed it! When I read up about it on the Tricycle theatre website and saw the duration I wondered if I could sit through a 2-hour long play without a companion, but time went so quickly because it was so enjoyable…
I’m really glad! It’s so great to hear the response from all different kinds of people.
As Peaches you have been described as smouldering and your confrontation with Sharon Clarke’s Lady Toof seen as one of the plays highlights. In order to play this character did you draw on any personal experiences or was it research?
Marcus (Gardley) writes really strong women, and that’s what I love about Peaches. She is a woman coming from the country into the city, she knows how to take care of herself; but she’s also got values, and they are not superficial/social values. I think a combination of Peaches’s countryness and her exotic dancer background allows her to be quite a good judge of character. She’s in her late 40s early 50s like me, she’s menopausal, so she’s reached that stage in her life where she’s saying ‘this is who I am and I’m not gonna be bothered by people who try and put me down, belittle me or who aren’t straight forward and truthful’. I grew up in the country, in Gloucestershire, it’s a different kind of country but it’s the same sort of thing where country people are straight about things. They can sniff you out if you’re not genuine in a heartbeat.
So that scene with Sharon Marcus wrote where Peaches goes “You don’t know who I am, you don’t know anything about me, you just look at me and you make a judgement,” she isn’t looking at her and making a judgement; for me that’s a really important message and is one that I’m glad Marcus is saying in his play, getting to the heart of who a person is and engage with who that is. I usually play people who are very cagey about what they say, like or like in Invictus I got to play Nelson Mandela’s Chief of staff, so people who think about the effect of what they’re going to say. I like Peaches’ sense of humour, her openness, she just speaks how she finds and it’s really refreshing and fun for me.
Something which stood out to me, and I think made for great comedy was your stance, throughout the whole play. You managed to keep your body twisted at such an angle that was just hilarious even in some of the more serious moments and made the character so unique. Was this purposeful?
I wanted her to have a slightly awkward way of being. She is called “ratchet” and has that slightly chaotic slinging herself about thing going on which isn’t about being poised. So I wanted to give her something that was a little bit kooky, I didn’t want her to be aloof I wanted her to connect with people and sometimes you have to be a bit off to do that.
You said earlier that you have played a lot of what some people would call n0n-typical characters on stage and on screen…
I think they are becoming a bit typical for black actresses, it’s a bit boring, we’ve gone from being prostitutes or somebody aggressive on the street, all up in someone’s face to the ‘strong black woman’. It’s not necessarily a complex strong black woman, it’s a way, in American films for example, that they will always make the judge black but the judge won’t actually have a life or story in whatever show it is. I’m not complaining about any of the work I have had, I’ve had a good career but this was something so different.
So that’s why you went for the role, it was so completely different from what you’re used to?
I didn’t really go for the role, I went for the play and the director because I saw The House That Will Not Stand [Read TBB’s Review here] last year and I just fell in love with Marcus’ writing. He takes this really well known French play, relocates it to Atlanta Georgia. He keeps the structure and pours into that, a black evangelical background (that he knows about because his father was an evangelical minister) into the mold of an European 18th century literary tradition. Genius! It’s like he can take any cultural area that he finds useful or interesting, put it into a play and make it work seamlessly.
His theology is perfect. For me as a Christian it is interesting to see Reverend Toof who has been gifted with these healing powers in the end get so beaten down by the world around him that it makes him turn away from his faith. All the stuff about trying to “cast out” the gay demon from Gumper, I just think what are we doing if we are still thinking that is an acceptable way to treat a human being? On top of all this it’s really funny! Also I went for Indhu (Rubasingham) because this is the third time I’ve worked with her and I think she’s an amazing director. I also got to work with some old friends; Sharon, Lucian (Msamati), Angela (Wynter) and Wil (Johnson) who I’ve known for years and I got to make new friends in Ayesha (Antoine), Karl (Queensborough) and Michelle (Bonnard).
There is a lot of slapstick comedy in this show like Morecambe and Wise, and Dick Emery and I really love people falling over, tripping on things, it’s marvellous I really love that. So it’s got all the politics, the clever literary stuff, black culture then it’s got people falling over things; to me that’s perfect!
Were your personal or professional feelings affected by the subject matter of the play?
I loved it! My personal feelings were overjoyed. You know those kinds of churches exist and I don’t know that they are doing God’s work frankly, so it’s a conversation to have.
I totally understand! It expresses how faith can be exploited due to greed and corruption and just being a human being and having weaknesses because we are all human whether preacher or church goer…
We are not perfect. It’s interesting, that’s a whole big conversation in the New Testament certainly and living in the world but are you living in God’s way. Toof’s problem seems to be that he gets lost along the way and he ends up lost in the worlds way and it ruins his faith. So it is a really interesting subject matter.
Directing the conversation a little away from the play, your artistic credits show that you are pretty much an all-rounder as a performer but how would you compare your approach to playing comedy as opposed to drama?
You have to be truthful to your character because that’s what’s interesting to an audience. They have to feel like they can engage on some truthful level with the character no matter the personality, gender, race or background. So with comedy there is an extremeness to it that highlights the truth that you don’t necessarily get in drama. So for example, when Peaches comes on and she says to the maid “Get me an Aspirin, a shot of Bourbon and a bottle of Cabernet”, it’s an exaggerated response to the stress that she’s had trying to get Archibald’s prescription refilled and it’s an exaggerated response to the fact that she is having a hot flush because she is a woman going through the menopause. So you exaggerate those things because it makes it funnier but actually the truth of me playing it, is that in my head I still have to hold onto the fact that these are actually things that are happening in her life.
You have worked extensively in theatre, The Tricycle Theatre has a strong representation for being on the fringe and staging smaller, independent productions. How do the experiences compare in terms of theatre profile as an actress?
The Tricycle, in terms of profile and the work is sort of on par with The Royal Court and The Donmar and those sort of theatres. I love working at The Tricycle, I love what Indhu is trying to do there, it’s not really so much on the fringe, The Tricycle has had shows such as Red Velvet, that went into the West End, it’s been to America; Handbagged, that was in the West End and on a big tour of the country right now. Indhu is getting a reputation for having good, thought provoking shows that can work for a broader audience like those who visit the West End. What she is doing is brilliant, she’s super smart and she is the only woman of colour artistic director of a theatre building in the country. On top of that, for me, the content of the work is so interesting, it’s challenging, it wants to get in new audiences but also make old audiences return. It’s the kind of work that I like to see when I go to the theatre – makes me laugh, cry and think. So working here is as great as working anywhere, I’m as happy working for Indhu as I am on a set working on a Clint Eastwood movie.
Speaking of Clint Eastwood and the big screen. Is working in television and theatre where your passion lies or is it just a reflection of how difficult it is to break into the UK and US film industry?
Well it’s lots of different things, I think if you’re an actor you generally take work as it comes to you. But I haven’t gone to the States, I have three children as well as a husband, a dog and a house and they are all here. But I do have a brother who conveniently lives in LA so if I want to go over there it won’t be a problem. I have all the usual things like a manager in LA and an agent. This is just how my life has panned out for the time-being and I’m really happy with it. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy taking work from wherever, be it Hollywood or Ghana, or wherever. I’ve been acting for over 30 years and I’ve made a good living out of it; I count my blessings every day.
You’ve also worked in radio for almost 20 years… Do you find radio much less demanding than the other acting genres?
Yes, I have, I love doing all of it, they all demand different things of you. When you’re on stage if you mess up you can’t ask for a second take so there’s a sort of terror that’s also a joy, you really feel like you’re in a conversation with people and I love that live response. Also, audiences are different with every show, it’s a soul-to-soul connection. Doing a film is exciting and equally terrifying, there are hundreds of people on set watching you, stuff being fiddled with, so when you get to your part you have to be on top of it. When you work with good actors and directors on good scripts it’s really thrilling and television is the same. I did Casualty for three years and Doctor Who for two series’, Law and Order for three and many more things; the challenge is, how do you work at a fast rate and stay fresh with everything so it’s a different challenge. Radio is really demanding because you haven’t got any other tricks up your sleeve apart from your voice. No facial expressions, no physical gestures nothing, it all has to come out of you vocally. I have just finished recording Beloved the Toni Morrison book.
I loved both the book and the film with Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton…
We’ve just done it as a 10-part for Radio 4. It’s going to be 15 minute episodes from Monday to Friday. There is something about radio; it’s almost like reading a book, the pictures are all created in your ear and then you take it with your imagination and colour in the rest of it. I love the fact that in radio you can suddenly be in space or under the sea, it’s got that sort of scope to it. It’s also given me the chance to write and present programmes about things I’m interested in, for instance I did a programme about called Something Understood earlier this year and I just did a programme about black women artists, writers, musicians and composers. Also one of my children is transgender so I did a talk on the radio about what that’s like. So radio is a really good medium people can listen to and it can accompany you in a way that the TV, Movie or Theatre can’t.
What’s next, do you have any more projects lined up?
Yes, I played Sam Peel’s mother in Adulthood and there’s a new film and I’m going to be in that. I’m at the Donmar Warehouse, I’ve started rehearsing in the day for that, I’m going to be doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses they did a film of it [Dangerous Liaisons, 1988] with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer. That opens in early December and runs until Mid- February.
Before you leave us, what has been your most memorable achievement to date?
I suppose going to South Africa to play Nelson Mandela’s Chief of staff because not only was I working with Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, but going to a country that at one time my parents (my mum is white and my dad is black) under apartheid, none of us could live together. So to go there and make a movie about the life of such a wonderful man was a beautiful thing. Also, to do an all-black cast Julius Caesar and to take it to Columbus Ohio and to have a black audience come and see it, while welcoming us into their theatre with African dancers and drummers that was really something. In a theatre that had been hosting Black arts and artists since the 1920’s was amazing.
A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes is showing at the Tricycle theatre until Saturday November 14th go to the website for more information and to book tickets.