TBB Talks To… Actress Olivia Onyehara

The York Summer of Shakespeare is an award-winning pop-up Shakespeare theatre.

Europe’s first ever was launched in 2018 and makes its return, offering audiences a designated summer programme of some of the writers’ classic works. This year it returns to Clifford’s Tower with new productions of Hamlet, Henry V, The Tempest and Twelfth Night.

TBB Talks spoke actress to Olivia Onyehara who takes on the role of ‘Viola‘ in Twelfth Night.

Introduce yourself…

My name is Olivia Onyehara, I’m an actor from Grimsby, Lincolnshire. My dad was born in Nigeria and my mum grew up in South Shields, near Newcastle.

You have been cast as the character Viola in The Twelfth Night, as part of the York Summer of Shakespeare, I love the character and she is also my namesake, what made you want to play Viola? How did you engage with your character?

Firstly Viola is such a cool name – congratulations. Olivia used to be – but now it’s ubiquitous. But together we make up two of Shakespeare’s most kick-ass women so go us! I was first introduced to Twelfth Night when I was 5, visiting family in Nigeria. One of my older cousins was studying it at school and told me I must have been named after “the beautiful countess” from the play – I always remembered it after that. I am also a real life fraternal twin so I’ve always been particularly drawn to Viola. I think the way Shakespeare writes about twins is so accurate and beautiful. I didn’t know for a really long time that he had twins himself, so it all makes sense now.

Twelfth Night explores gender identity and sexual attraction, the idea of androgyny and sexual ambiguity which fits in so well with the world we live in today, how do you think the play fits into the discussion of gender and gender roles?

Twelfth Night fits so well into the discussion of gender and gender roles today. Viola finds out quickly how gender identity affects how one is treated by both men and women when she dresses in her brother’s clothes and renames herself, Cesario. A question I ask myself is, would we find the play as engaging if we didn’t still have these preconceptions today? Or would we find something different in the relationships that are forged on the stage?
The relationship between Orsino and Cesario opens up a lot of questions because of Cesario’s sexual ambiguity. It can be argued that Orsino falls in love with Cesario, not Viola and I think if Shakespeare were writing this today there is a chance that they might live together as they are at the end.

Picture Credit Charlotte Graham 
Pictures Shows Actors from the 2019 company of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre pictured outside York to mark the first day of rehearsals. 
L-R Mark Holgate as ‘Duke Orsino’ from Twelfth Night Sam Callis as ‘Prospero’ Maggie Bain as ‘Henry V’ David Oakes as ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’, Olivia Onyehara as ‘Viola’ from Twelfth Night

What would you like the audience to gain from the characters’ experience?

I only ever want them to enjoy it. If they think wow 400 years ago this guy wrote this stuff and I’ve been affected by it whilst standing in a car park in York, that would be good too.

What is your favourite line and/or scene from the play?

There are so many to choose from. I love the scene where Olivia and Viola meet for the first time, it’s a battle of the wits between two very clever women and it’s great I get to speak it. I’m a huge fan of all the dirty one-liners though, to be honest.

Have any adaptions been made to the production?

Yeah, lots of cuts to the script. It’s also now set in the ’20s (the music is fantastic). We also swapped the opening scenes around, so we go from a shipwreck straight onto the beach with Viola and the sailors, instead of the famous “If music be the food of love” speech.

Did you know from an early age that you wanted to act?

I grew up in Grimsby, so there wasn’t a local theatre really. I was taken to the theatre a lot, and I knew I loved it, but it never really occurred to me that I could do it as a career. I fell in love with performing at college and started singing with an amazing opera group. When I realised I was completely under qualified to ever pursue a career as an opera singer I realised that it was buzz of the performing that I wanted so I applied to drama school and that was that.

As an actor what is the most important thing to consider when taking on a role?

What to consider when taking on a role depends entirely on the individual. It may be that you are drawn to it or that you think it’s going to be a mountain to climb. Whatever it may be, a role should spark something in you.

If you could play any role past or present, whether on screen or stage, what would it be and why?

I’d be in an early Spike Lee film – or as we’re discussing it, I’d play any one of Samuel L Jackson’s iconic roles as an androgynous female.

What’s next for you?

To quote the play its “as secret as Maidenhead”.

Thank you for speaking to The British Blacklist.

The York season of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre will run from Tuesday 25 June – Sunday 1 September 2019, with Hamlet, Henry V, The Tempest and Twelfth Night.

The Blenheim Palace season will run from Monday 8 July – Saturday 7 September 2019 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and Richard III.

Find out more and buy tickets here


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