Actress Gbemisola Ikumelo is currently starring in ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ as part of Paines Plough’s 40th anniversary.
Written by Kate Tempest and directed by the company’s joint Artistic Director James Grieve, Hopelessly Devoted has transferred to the Tricycle following a national tour.
Starring opposite Cat Simmons and Michelle Gayle, Gbemisola plays ‘Serena’ an inmate who shares a cell with Chess (Cat Simmons). Facing a lengthy sentence, Serena and Chess become her soulmates. But when Serena is given parole, Chess faces total isolation. Hope comes in the form of a music producer ‘Silver’ (Michelle Gayle) looking for a reason to love music again. Silver finds a powerful voice in Chess. But to harness her talent, Chess must first face her past.
As the only original member of the cast, Gbemisola talked to us about her journey as an actor thus far…
We first met a few years ago on the Royal Court ‘Critical Mass’ writing course. Are you still writing?
Yeah, I’m still writing; I’ve written a few things actually, and recently got commissioned to write something at the Theatre Centre who produce young people’s writing and I’m developing that play as a full-length piece which will be happening next year. I’m sort of delving into film getting my feet wet in that and I’ve written a few shorts. I tend to do a lot of my writing when I’m on tour so it’s cool.
Is that when you’re at your most creative?
Yeah in the back of a van and without my creature comforts I guess [laughs].
You’re in this play ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ playing ‘Serena’ opposite Michelle Gayle and Cat Simmons. How’s it been so far?
It did have a stint last year at the Birmingham Rep and then it toured the Midlands, and this time round it’s more south of England and a bit of north. It’s a very different beast; a lot of the work has changed and developed further.
So you’ve been doing this since February?
Yes, we opened in February in Norwich, late February early March and now we’re finishing off in London at the Tricycle which is an awesome space.
…and you’re the only original member of the cast…
Yes, I was part of the cast last year. So Cat and Michelle are both new to it this time. It’s essentially a very new show.
I thought that normally plays do a run in a theatre and then if it’s successful it goes on tour but you guys went straight into touring…
I think Paines Plough are very much committed to touring their work to all the rural parts and different parts of England. They’re very committed to touring as a company. I guess it’s a part of their remit and part of their passion as a company.
So how much has Hopelessly Devoted changed, you said it’s become a ‘different type of beast’?
Beast is a bit of a strong word [laughs] … it’s a swan. It feels a lot fuller as a piece and essentially there are things that have been added that weren’t there before. A lot more of that lyricism that Kate Tempest has as a writer; as a poet, has made its way into it. So I think it’s very much got a lot of Kate’s voice lyrically speaking which I think would be the major difference to last time.
It’s a bit of a major coup for you that the way you depict your character Serena has made you irreplaceable…
Yeah…maybe [laughs] or maybe they thought ‘ah can’t be bothered to cast her it’s too much work’. It’s a three-hander, so it’s really a gift because everyone is really a crucial part of everyone else’s story. I mean the central character is ‘Chess’ and the story is really about Chess and her relationship with Serena, they’re very close friends in prison and become soul mates. Serena is due to go out on parole and Chess is being forced to face a lot of things in her past. The other character ‘Silver’ played by Michelle Gayle is a music producer looking for her own redemption because of her past and she’s basically teaching music workshops and through finding out that Chess is just awesome talent they support each other and it’s about Chess finding some sort of freedom within the confines of prison.
What’s the message of this piece?
I think it’s a story, but from my point of view, love is a driving force behind it. There is an essence of love that drives each of these characters and even though these people have been through some real hard times, love is able to fight through that. I do think it’s about freedom as well in that when one feels trapped, there is a freedom.
What have you taken away from it as an actress?
I had my first professional gig when I was 16 and I’ve been acting for a while. I feel like I’ve been quite blessed to have a varied career from radio to TV to theatre. I think what’s really beautiful about this piece and what stands out in terms of career, it’s very rare that you get to do a piece with three strong women and women of colour as well. That’ s a real gift that Kate has given us as a writer. Just to play these non-clichéd women of strength. Yeah there’s stuff that they’ve done wrong and yeah there’s a lot of baggage that they bring to it but ultimately they’re trying to fight for something good as opposed to being all worried and oh look at me and my situation. I think that’s what is really great and it’s so intimate as a piece.
You also write, do you feel that in today’s climate actors have to be able to do a bit of everything?
Oh yes. I think the changing nature of the arts and funding and the way the industry is changing is going to force artists to be double, triple, quadruple threats. People are going to start finding people who can produce their own work. We’re probably going to go back to the real guerrilla style of producing work that’s gonna hopefully take us back to a time when we were politically focussed and socially aware in terms of our work, in terms of the non-commercial sector. For me that’s the way forward, that’s what’s happening. Actors aren’t just actors anymore they’re also producers, they’re also writers. I remember coming out of drama school that’s all we were told, don’t tell anyone you do more than acting but I think that’s not the case anymore I think it’s becoming more appealing. Acting has always been my first love but I’ve always loved to write and I’ve always loved to produce work and create work. So I don’t know if it makes me more bankable but I feel that it opens up the world of creativity in a different way and I see things a bit differently because I know what it’s like to be on either side.
Have you had your moment of clarity when it comes to your career do you feel like you’re on the right path?
It’s a strange one, I find that it changes all the time. So there’ll be some years you’re all yeah this is the path and then other times it will be let’s go back to the drawing board. Because I like to create other projects outside of just being an actor I always feel like I’m having to renegotiate things creatively speaking. For example, now I’m in a place as an actor where I’m earning a certain amount and maybe I won’t go back to non paid jobs for example. Then there are some people who will say, well actually I’m not going to do this job that’s paying thousands and thousands of pounds because it means I can’t get to do some of the stuff I want to do creatively so I guess it’s what your priorities are. I want to say I’ve done it all and I’ve ticked all the mental boxes. The theatre companies I’ve wanted to work for and the kinds of roles I’ve wanted to do and writers I’ve wanted to work with. I’m driven by the work and the creative experience.
What would be your dream theatre space, dream actor to work opposite, and dream director and writer?
Dream theatre… I have more than one. But the Tricycle is one of them. Not because I’m here, but I kid you not it’s a dream that I’m here. I would love to do something with the RSC as well. Dream director that’s a difficult one, I kind of worked with a dream director which was Rufus Norris in Death of A Kings Horseman. Another one would be Trevor Nunn. Actor, gosh that’s a tough one, who’s awesome… Meryl Streep. I’m a real fan of new writing, so actually not new writing so much but it was a play called Ruined which I thought was an absolutely stunning piece of theatre.
Back to the drawing board. Auditioning as usual. I’m writing a piece and developing a play which I’ll be producing with my own production company Faith Drama Productions.
What do you want the audience to take away from Hopelessly Devoted?
What I’ve found really interesting from the post-show discussion and what I found really interesting from what people took away from it was the notion and reality of choices and the fact that these women in prison are human beings who made different choices and so there was a real human empathy that they felt with the characters. And if people come out of this feeling empathy and being moved by their stories and engage with them, I don’t know if I could want more.
Hopelessly Devoted is showing at the Tricycle Theatre until Sat 19 Apr 2014. To Book Tickets go to the website: www.tricycle.co.uk