This summer The Color Purple receives its European musical premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory
With a fresh, uplifting score of jazz, ragtime, gospel, and blues, the production runs from 5 July until 14 September, with press night at the Southwark venue on 15 July.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple follows the inspirational Celie and her trials, tribulations, and triumphs as a young African American woman in 1930s Georgia. A tale of stirring family drama and personal empowerment, Celie journeys from childhood through joy, despair, hope, and anguish, to discover the power of love and life.
Directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle (Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show at Menier, and Mack and Mabel) will direct and design. The Color Purple will star Cynthia Erivo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Sister Act: The Musical – UK tour) as Celie; Christopher Colquhoun (Casualty, Five Guys Named Moe) as Mister; Nicola Hughes (Porgy & Bess) as Shug; Adebayo Bolaji (Ghost) as Harpo.
The British Blacklist has spoken to the four lead stars of this iconic production…introducing Christopher Colquhoun who plays Mister…
What was it about this character that made you take this role?
Why on earth would you not take this role? It’s a beautiful piece. The music is fantastic it’s a phenomenal story. I grew up in the era of the film so I remember the impact that had on everybody including myself. It’s a massive challenge and one I’d never thought I’d get the opportunity to play. So I’m doubly excited from being offered it.
How did the film impact you?
I just remember feeling waves of emotion, feeling really moved by it. I was a young man, I wasn’t politicized or particularly aware of a lot of the history or the issues but just as a story it absolutely resonated. I watched it again recently and it actually still stands up as a good piece of filmmaking.
The film was criticised for having a strong feminist agenda…
I’m very aware that there’s an onus on me as a male actor to find the humanity and completeness of character which allows you to understand why this man acts the way he does. Ultimately the piece is a women’s piece. It’s about the women. The men are not peripheral at all Mr and Harpo are very central characters. But if you were to say who the story’s about, first it’s about Celie, then it’s about Sophia and then it’s about Harpo and Shug and Nettie and Mister in terms of dynamics. So we’re really telling a story of feelings and these people are in her (Celie’s) world.
I am trying to find the humanity of the piece and not making him a caricature baddie. If you read the book and listen to Alice Walker talk about it, it was certainly not her intention. I suppose the point she wanted to make and what I understand, is that yes these people behaved in an appalling way but like victims of abuse it’s cyclical and it takes events to break the chain. This happens in the microcosms of society. We can’t change it to make it so people are comfortable and why would we? There’s no point in ever dissipating the dark side of Mister, the evil side of Mister in order to placate people’s sensibilities. We have to honour the writer. No one person can be the spokesperson for everybody or every black man. These men happen to act in this way, and actually, Harpo’s quite a nice bloke.
In characterising Mister did you channel any of Danny Glover or draw from the Broadway version?
The only version I’ve seen is the film. I try, as any actor with an ego as hard as I can to make the character my own. Because Danny Glover isn’t Mister, Mister is the character on the page which you have to bring yourself to. Again you get into characterization trying to recreate something else which is not your psychology so it doesn’t come from a sense of truth. So as an Actor whatever role you’re playing, it would be ridiculous to try and play somebody else’s performance. I don’t look like Danny Glover, I’m not built the same way so… One of the women in the show paid me the biggest compliment today she said she purposely hadn’t watched the film since she’d watched it many years ago, and she looked at me now and said ‘You’re Mister’. She said she’d forgotten what Danny Glover did and you’re now Mister. I was moved by that.
How do the UK version and Broadway version compare?
I can’t tell you in terms of which is better, but I can tell you that I know they spent millions on the Broadway version, I know that it was a big set with lots of different sets on it, and this will be the absolute polar opposite in that we are probably approaching it as more of a play with songs. We have a very minimal set without saying too much. It’s very sparse and it’s about the actors in the space telling the story. Let me tell you what I’ve seen people doing every day, it’s exciting to come to work.
You’ve had an extensive career in theatre with a few musicals under your belt, how does The Color Purple compare to past productions?
This is the first job that I’ve had in about six years either straight play or a musical I’ve been genuinely kind of…I can feel the blood rushing through my veins, and that was before we’d started rehearsals. You hear the music or 16 voices in one room singing all types of harmonies it’s beautiful and it’s got a wonderful story. The musicals that I’ve done in the past are all kind of what they call ‘Jukebox Musicals’ pretty much – ‘Blues in the Night’, ‘Aint Misbehavin’,’Five Guys Named Moe’, they’re all really song and dance shows. You get up, do your number, then sit down or get off stage but there’s not any depth in the story of any of them they’re purely entertainment. This has a depth we are all desperately trying to honour. Every single person is amazing. Of course, I could just be saying that, but I genuinely mean it. I come in every day and say ‘that’s brilliant’ ‘you’re amazing’ ‘I love you’ it’s a real pleasure to be a part of.
How rigorous is the rehearsal for this production?
I was about to tell you a boring story about how I used to train with a friend of mine and I was able to run without much effort. We went to play squash one day and within about 10 minutes of playing, I was exhausted absolutely knackered and he was like, are you kidding I’m just warming up, and I said no honestly I’m done. I realised that because I’d never played before I was working my muscles from the wrong place because I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t really about fitness it’s about how you use your body, and that’s what it’s like doing rehearsals and a run of a show. I would hate with this show more than any I’ve done in a while to get Laryngitis or something!
What’s your take on ‘our‘ stories coming to the main stage – The West End at that?
It’s two-fold. I’m always pleased when there are black productions. But I’m also frustrated with the lack of new black work that happens. I feel like the same things come on again and again. I’m very happy for Lenny Henry to be doing Fences, and I hear it’s brilliant and I’m really excited to see it and a friend of mine is in it, but one of the last black productions I saw a while at the West End a while back was a production of Fences! Have we not got something new that we can give these same people to do? I went to see ‘Amen Corner’ the other day, absolutely brilliant live performance which could not have been done any better it was beautiful, but then it was like, okay, that was written 60 years ago. For me, I feel a little bit like that. But that’s in no means to be disparaging to any of our work…
I don’t think you’re alone with that line of thinking, but who do you think the onus is on… The West End or ‘us‘?
We definitely need to write more of our own work. I think the younger generation seem to be grasping that. Nathaniel Martello-White did his production of Blackta. But ultimately I don’t know how we do it. The West End is always going to be commercial, it’s always going to be about making money so you have to find a way of doing a story that people want to see and if you can doing a story that you know you can put a named actor in cos that’s how the West End works. It’s as simple as that. If The Color Purple were to have a longer life it would because people know the book if they didn’t know the book it probably wouldn’t stand a chance no matter how brilliant it is. I dunno…
Which do you enjoy more, TV, Film, Theatre?
My spirit loves singing with other people. I love theatre. I definitely love the process of theatre more than television. Casualty was great because I was on it for two and a half years we became like a family and that’s similar to what we have in theatre companies but most TV shows I’ve done you turn up one day then you’re gone away for three days, then you turn up for another half day, then you go away so you don’t get that time, TV can be really frustrating in that respect.
I prefer musicals because they have a different vibe, I grew up singing and there’s something about singing in a group that affects not just the listener but the person doing it, it’s actually healthy and positive to the spirit…you know when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and that’s happening all the time in rehearsals. You know like in a play you say ‘wow that’s amazing’ but you rarely get that feeling where it’s non intellectualised and it’s just your body reacting to something. That’s special.
What’s next for you?
No idea. I rarely know. I’ve done very little this year. Times are hard, you go from thing to thing. Hopefully, something will come off the back of this job!
The Color Purple runs from 5th July – 14th September 2013 and tickets can be bought from http://www.