Previously starring in BBC series Trust Me and Clique, Saskia Ashdown is a Scottish actor and musician based in Edinburgh.
Ashdown, who is classical trained in piano and saxophone, joined the National Youth Theatre before completing an honours degree at the University of Edinburgh. Over lockdown, Ashdown has kept busy, performing in Hannah Lavery’s two-hander Disco with Mum opposite Julie Graham for National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival, a season of short digital artworks created by a quarantined creative team that connected remotely.
This November, Ashdown will be starring alongside Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart, with Beldina Odenyo performing as guitarist and vocalist, at The Lyceum Theatre in Hannah Lavery’s Lament for Sheku Bayoh. This play is an artistic response to the real death of Sheku Bayoh, a 31-year-old gas engineer, husband, and father of two who died in Police custody on the streets of his home town, Kirkcaldy, Fife, on May 3rd, 2015.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh is an expression of grief for the loss of the human behind the headlines and a non-apologetic reflection on identity and racism in Scotland today that asks the urgent question: is Scotland really a safe place?
Please introduce yourself …
I’m Saskia Ashdown. I’m an actor and musician, working mainly in theatre and sometimes in screen.
What word or sentence best describes your life right now?
Overwhelming. Sometimes in a negative sense, with everything we’re collectively and individually going through just now, but also so often overwhelmed with gratitude and positive emotion, which is something I’m making a conscious effort to hold onto.
This summer we saw a turn to theatres creating online content – an example of which was your performance of Hannah Lavery’s two-hander, Disco with Mum. What was it like rehearsing and performing a play in which you and your co-actor, Julie Graham, weren’t even in the same room?
Yes, a bit strange. However, it was only really the technical aspects that made it different – the rehearsal process I suppose was similar to a regular one. It was all done over Zoom and we had sound, lighting, and camera technicians teaching us the setup. As our piece actually was set during a video call, we had individual cameras at home filming ourselves, then Bluetooth earphones so we could hear each other, but not pick up each other’s voices on our mics. And a clap pre-filming to sync, so that it could be adjusted for Zoom lag in the edit. All very clever.
What’s it been like rehearsing for your latest project Lament for Sheku Bayoh – were you and your co-actors, Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart, able to meet face-to-face this time?
We have! All socially distanced of course, but we’ve had two weeks of rehearsal in a real-life room. It’s so great to be back working with Patricia and Courtney again – and now with Beldina Odenyo – they are all such talented, sensitive performers. Understandably, there is a heavy emotional weight that is being carried, but the rehearsal room itself is uplifting. We start rehearsals blasting music and dancing to warm up.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh follows the true story of Sheku Bayoh, a 31-year-old gas engineer, husband, and father of two who died in Police custody on the streets of his home town. Was Sheku’s story one that you were familiar with before reading Hannah Lavery’s play?
I’m a little ashamed to say that no, I didn’t know the details of Sheku’s story back in 2015. I was aware, but not familiar. We first presented this piece as a rehearsed reading during the Edinburgh International Festival in 2019 and so many audience members (mostly Scottish themselves) weren’t aware of the details of Sheku’s story. There seemed to be a lot of shock that death in police custody happened like this in Scotland and is not confined to England or America. It’s very interesting that people think this.
Staging Sheku Bayoh’s story at this moment is particularly poignant after a summer of global Black Lives Matter protests. How effectively do you think Scotland has interrogated its own position within these debates?
From my personal perspective, it’s only now as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests that there’s an awareness of Scotland’s position within these debates – of its role in the history of slavery and in racism/racial discrimination to this day. As with the rest of the UK, we are not taught the whole truth of our country’s history, formally in education or otherwise, and I think many believe that racism just ‘isn’t something that happens here‘. There is much about Scotland to love and to be proud of, but within that love and pride, there is huge capacity for criticism and accountability. And I think in holding ourselves accountable, we provide room for growth.
I find it intriguing that the subject of Lament for Sheku Bayoh is the life and tragic death of a Black man, yet the cast consists of three Black women – could you tell us anything about the roles you play?
As a lament, the piece is an expression of grief. Hannah’s lament form is inspired by the Scottish Gaelic and Irish tradition of keening, a vocal ritual performed by ‘cultural professionals’ – the keeners, who were usually women. These women would support and guide the soul of the deceased as well as supporting the souls of those left behind. So in some ways, we take on the role of a keener. This tradition has been very much in our hearts as we rehearse and I hope that the piece can be a way for us to stand with those who knew and loved Sheku as they seek the truth and justice for him and to ask others to do the same.
It’s also not that common to see a National Theatre stage a play with a cast entirely consisting of Black women – not to mention with an entirely female creative team. Do you know if this was a deliberate choice, and how did it feel to work with this team?
Ha! It’s not common, is it? Certainly, the cast choice was conscious. It was important that the lamenters be played by Black women. As far as I know, the fully female creative team was a great bonus. But now, it feels as though it could never have been done any other way. It feels important to have worked alongside people with similar lived experiences. You feel as though you can speak freely in the room and not have to come backed up to the hilt with receipts to explain yourself, which we all know can often be the case as marginalised voices.
Have you got any other upcoming projects you want to tell us about?
I was due to be performing in Jack Absolute Flies Again at the National Theatre this year, which we’re hoping will make a reappearance! Apart from that, I’m in total freefall.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU:
- A book you have to have in your collection: You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters, by Kate Murphy
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date: Out of sheer hours racked up recently, it’s got to be Only When We’re Naked by Zak Abel
- A film/TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly: Peep Show
- The first play you saw and what it meant to you? By the time I saw my first straight play, I was quite old. It was The Railway Children at Waterloo Station, with the National Railway Museum steam train and the audience lined up on the platforms. It was winter and my hands hurt from the cold, but I remember feeling like there was real magic in the air. It’s so exciting to be reminded that there could be someone in the audience experiencing theatre for the first time and that I could be helping create that same magic for them.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week: Sad as I think of Sheku Bayoh’s family, of the pain that they are forced to go through as their questions remain unanswered. Mad as ever at the state of political governing across the world. Glad that in amongst all the chaos, I have found moments to be with and speak with the people that make me the happiest.
Performances of Lament for Sheku Bayoh will be live-streamed from the Lyceum Theatre in three performances across Friday 20th – Saturday 21st November. Audio Described, BSL interpreted, and captioned versions of Lament for Sheku Bayoh are available. To book tickets or find out more information, follow this link.