With the play well under way, I speak with Ronke who plays Jane Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice showing at Sheffield Theatre. Whilst talking with Ronke you can’t help but notice just how bubbly she is as she talks of how proud she is of the work she does and what she looks forward to in the future.
Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most famous novel, well known within the literature world. How has this production brought the wit and passion to the stage?
Well, we have this amazing director Tamara Harvey, and she is a visionary in ideas and thoughts. So, when we were in the rehearsal room, she made sure that all of our thoughts were really clear. We also have an amazing choreographer – Scott Ambler, who has created these dances and physicality with all these characters just cropping up around the place. It’s quite quick and lively!
You play Jane Bennett, who is known for her wide-eyed innocence and good nature. How have you explored and developed her character?
(Laughs) wide-eyed innocence…I don’t know, as a person that’s always a bit of a high casting breakdown to go through, because everyone is as equally good and bad. To say that someone is just innocent and doesn’t have any desires or hidden secrets is a bit of a lie. What I did was try to discover all of the stuff that was going on in her and why her outside is [perceived] as innocent or wide-eyed, because she comes from a place of love and she flows with love. That is her fundamental setting, but at the same time all of the stuff that is going down between her and her sisters, her mum especially…there’s a real desperation for her wanting to speak up, in my version anyway. She has a real desperation of wanting to be like her sister Lizzie (Elizabeth) and is vicariously living through her, which makes it easier for her to take the backseat, because everything she thinks, Lizzie says.
How did you come about to audition for the part?
My agent phoned me and told me about it and at first I was a bit like ‘Sheffield? Hmm? Pride and Prejudice? Hmm?’(Laughs). Because I’m a Londoner, I was born in Hackney, raised in Barking, so to be honest I was a bit afraid. I spoke to my best friend about it and he just said ‘Ronk – magic happens outside comfort zones, you can’t say no to the audition’ so I said OK cool, I’ll go in. I went in and met Tamara who was amazing. She made the audition really comfortable; I was allowed to do what I thought was needed, rather than this is exactly how you should do it. You should speak like this, act like this. From there I thought, I like this woman. Even if she doesn’t give me this part I will work with her on another thing. Then she offered it and I was quite shocked at first, because to my ignorance, to be fair, and negligence I had never read the book or watched the film. I was a bit clueless! So I went and did my research…
Jane Austen’s novels across the board are very witty, talking of class amidst other topics, so I can see how that could be overwhelming to think ‘I’m playing a part of Jane Austen’s novel’
Yes! I also think people’s first impression is ‘oh there’s a lot of fun and laughter’, but there is a lot of tragic things that are going on and that’s what makes it even more funny because it’s so human. When I read her novel, which took me a long time (laughs) because if I don’t understand something I have to re-read it, but I was reading these paragraphs 3 or 4 times just thinking, ‘what is happening?’ But I got to the end, thank God!
Having played Odette in ‘The House That Will Not Stand’, towards the end of 2014, you are all too familiar with playing a character within sibling rivalry – has it been more easier or difficult portraying Jane due to the nature of the story?
I’d have to say they are completely different. Odette was the youngest and completely clueless in the sense where she just wanted out. She wanted to be her own person because she was mixed up in-between her two sisters, so that was a completely different journey on her path as well. What she ends up doing at the end of the play was a form of relief and breakout. But with Jane, because she is the eldest she is trying to set a standard as to what her sister should be. Especially because her mum (Michelle Austin) is a bit of a wild card, so she thinks ‘I have to be the woman. This is what women act like. This is how we should be…’ and she’s very set in her ways. I think when Mr Bingly ditches her she becomes very cold, because she’s almost like ‘I played by the rules. I did all of the things I was supposed to do’ and it didn’t work out. So by the time he comes back, it’s wonderful. Both characters were equally as challenging. I’d say this one is even harder because of the accent. It was strange because with The House… it was a southern American New Orleans 1836 accent and my mind could cope with that. This one, it’s almost like are you speaking your own voice then putting your t’s on at the end. So I have to think of this one as a completely different accent otherwise my Ts will slip and my Ds will disappear and I start speaking like this on stage and people will start to think that’s not right (laughs). I would say it was challenging in that sense because it’s a lot closer to home regarding my voice, not the character…I’m not like Jane.
Has the production stayed true to the nature of the story in terms of the language, setting and costume?
Yes – with the lads the costumes are a bit different, but the language is still of that same nature and the set is incredible! Lez Brotherston has made it look…it is just amazing being on that stage everyday, it’s such a blessing. Because it looks fantastic and I look fantastic! (laughs).
You’ve been cast in a lot of female forward productions – do you think this is something the industry as a whole is infiltrating a lot of and how can this continue to be pushed?
The thing is…you know when you are cast in a play, you never look at it like oh wow there’s lots of female roles. You just think yay! Great, I’ve got a job. Until you are in a room with a lot of women and they are strong, inspiring and their stories you can actively relate to. I do think that it’s an active thing that the industry are going yes, we need female leads and yes we need to hear female stories, unfortunately how many of those do we actually have? The great thing about people, and there’s a line in the play that I’ll slightly paraphrase, it says ‘People are always changing so you can watch them and learn from them forever’. Everyday a new story can be told about a woman who jumped out of an aeroplane or a woman who kills her children like Medea or about a woman who is just happy on life. Those are our mothers, sisters, and best friends – of course people want to see them. I always get confused when people think that others don’t want to watch that stuff, but Medea at The National was packed out! We’re doing pretty well, The House… did pretty well and these are all fantastic stories and are played by fantastic actresses…
As the production delves on topics such as class, wealth and gender, is Pride and Prejudice still relevant today, as it was when it was written?
Yes! Lizzie (Isabella Laughland) in the world of the play she seems a bit like the wild one. She speaks out of turn or she does what she feels or she walks three/four miles that she’s rough round the edges. It’s kind of looked down upon in the play and to be fair, in society today if you meet a woman who doesn’t really care about what she looks like or how she speaks and she’s just ready to be who she is, the world doesn’t understand that. [Society] won’t really empower you until like Lizzie, she marries a man and gets all his money (laughs). Or a woman in society today becomes very wealthy. It’s not until Oprah was Oprah that people were suddenly like I love her. It’s not until you see these women who say they want to make a stand against everything you’ve told them about themselves and then suddenly they are celebrated for the change they have made. At first, criticism will always come and then when they realise that you are the visionary they celebrate you. It’s hard because many women fall at the first hurdle. They’ll do something amazing and someone will just say that’s odd, don’t do it and that person will stop. That’s heart breaking for me. I would say that this story is relevant regarding class itself – it’s funny because our family is of lower class and then the Bingley and Darcy’s come in and I think what is really inspiring and lovely about this production is it continues to tell that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you do or what your background is, love will prevail! Not just love between man and woman, man and man or woman and woman, not just love in an intimate way, but love in a people way and that’s important.
How has it been working with the cast?
It’s wonderful, because there are loads of us. What Tamara has done is cast characters that are played by young people. James Northcote and I did NYTG over five years ago, so it’s amazing seeing him. I did The House with Michelle as you know and it’s just all these lovely talented people coming together. It’s inspiring because they work hard and you want to work harder as well. Because there are a lot of us, there is always someone that has your back to help you if there is a crisis. It’s another journey and learning process and it’s nice that everyone is bringing part of their life coming into it and having a laugh with each other, whilst still being very serious about the production and what it means. It’s been great and fun!
With the production running until early June, what projects have you got lined up afterwards or are there any projects that you would like to be a part of?
I’m literally putting out feelers. If anyone wants to cast me in a production I’d be so happy. To be fair I love the stage so much and would happily do it forever, but I know my agent is keen on me getting some more screenplay. I’ve done one screen job when I graduated and that’s been it! It’s been lovely and nothing’s been planned…well I shouldn’t say that. Whatever God wants me to do, I will do! But so far I teach young people in and around my borough and I go into schools motivationally speaking about being able to do things that you believe in, because unfortunately young people are mostly told that they can’t or shouldn’t. So I’m the Pro Youth person when I’m not acting! It’s something that I’m passionate about and I teach workshops at RADA and I’m going back home to set something up…so it’s in the pipeline.