This April, Fisayo Akinade will star as Mercutio in the new National Theatre production of Romeo & Juliet.
Making his screen debut in 2015 playing Dean Monroe in Russell T Davies’ series Banana and Cucumber, Akinade has since performed in a range of critically acclaimed productions on both stage and screen – including the widely celebrated Barbershop Chronicles.
Romeo & Juliet is the National Theatre’s first original production made exclusively for screen and brings to life the remarkable backstage spaces of the National Theatre. The 90-minute film was shot over the course of three weeks with the full set being completely Covid-compliant.
We spoke to Fisayo to find out more about what it’s been like filming a 90-minute play as the country remains in national lockdown…
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Fisayo Akinade, I’m Black British Nigerian and I’m an actor.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
You made your screen debut in 2015 with the highly charismatic portrayal of Dean Monroe in both Russell T Davies’ series Banana and Cucumber. How did it feel to effectively land two mini-series in one?
I loved filming those shows. Cucumber and Banana were my first real TV jobs and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to that world. Russell has a way of making his sets the most love-filled and safe spaces. You felt free to make whatever choices you wanted and the cast and crew were so wonderful, it didn’t feel like work. I didn’t really consider the fact that they were separate, they felt so intrinsically linked, it felt like one big show really.
When you finish working on a project, do you leave that character behind forever, or do you ever find yourself bringing forward what you learned in playing that character to the next role?
I think I tend to leave the character behind but I take with me the lessons a job has taught me. That could be a new way of approaching a character, dealing with inflated egos, or just understanding myself or my process a bit better. There’s always something to learn, from every job really. Good experience or bad, there’s always a lesson in there somewhere.
I also have to ask about your role as Samuel in Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles. This play has been so important to so many people in challenging expectations of what theatre might be and who it might be written for – what was it like for you to be part of this production
Barbershop Chronicles is hands down one of the most enjoyable and meaningful stage experiences I’ve ever had. It felt like more than a job. Walking into that rehearsal room on day one was proper magic. Seeing twelve other black men in a rehearsal room was a first for me. Eleven I’d be sharing the stage with and one, Inua, who created the whole thing. I don’t think any of us realised what we had on our hands. That first preview was crazy. Lights came up at the end of the show and everyone was on their feet.
The most special part though was the fact that every night new audiences were turning up to the theatre. Often theatre can feel like an elitist institution, and there’s a certain demographic that thinks they own it and it was lovely to see people who’d never set foot in a theatre see themselves and their stories represented for the first time. I remember a conversation I had with two young men who had never been to a theatre before and they asked if it was always like this. I told them no, it’s not. But you should come anyway because theatre is for everyone.
Let’s talk about your upcoming role as Mercutio in the new national theatre production of Romeo & Juliet. This isn’t your first time performing a Shakespeare play – you’ve also played Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Eros in Antony & Cleopatra. How do you generally feel towards Shakespeare’s work?
I love Shakespeare, I think he’s forever relevant. He has a way of staying timeless despite the sometimes archaic language. He takes these huge emotions and distils them down to these beautiful speeches. I also love the fact that there’s a million different ways to interpret the meanings behind his words. I enjoy Shakespeare most when actors make it sound as if it was written today. Somehow making these 400-year-old words sound fresh and new.
Mercutio is hands down my favourite character in Romeo & Juliet. Is there anything that particularly excites you about your characterisation of this part?
Mercutio is my favourite character too! I think the most exciting aspect of him in this production is the decision to make him openly gay and in a relationship with Benvolio. When I first got the role we were going to perform it on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre and we were going to set it in the late ’80s in a very strict Catholic society. So Mercutio being openly gay in that context was exciting. I think it gave him a sense of defiance, someone bucking against societal rules and traditions. In the film, the setting is slightly different but I still think the choice works. I also enjoy how lyrical Mercutio is, his love of language and skill in utilising it was something that excited me about the role.
There have been many iconic portrayals of Mercutio over the years – who can forget Harold Perrineau’s screen-stealing performance in Baz Luhrmann’s version. When developing your own characterisation of Mercutio, have you looked to any of these past performances or do you try to stay as far away from them as possible?
Okay, so Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio is the reason I fell in love with the character. He was incredible. This flamboyant, camp, sharp-tongued, violent, and charismatic man. And for me, watching it in high school, not fully understanding my own queerness, seeing this Black man in a white afro and mini skirt lip-syncing to ‘Young Hearts Run Free” was incredibly formative. He felt free. Completely unbound by the ‘rules’ of Black masculinity in a way I had never witnessed. Of course, I thought of him when I was going up for the role and then in preparing for the film. But the thing I enjoy about Shakespeare and his characters is that they are infinitely interpretable. I knew I didn’t want to even begin to attempt to copy what Harold had done. He’d already done it. So it was my job to make Mercutio my own.
Romeo and Juliet was filmed during the current national lockdown. What’s it been like trying to rehearse and film a production while following government restrictions?
Filming during the lockdown was weird at first but after two days it all became very normal. The testing regime, the distancing, the rules all became second nature, so it wasn’t too tough.
Is there anything you’ve found you’ve preferred about making theatre during a national lockdown, or are you wanting to get back to the old ways of making theatre asap?
I had a lot of fun making this film. I enjoy the freedom that film gives you. The fact that you don’t have to worry about projecting your voice to reach the back of a thousand seat theatre or the fact that you can convey and use more subtle gestures on film was something I found particularly enjoyable. But nothing beats live theatre. It’s what I started in and I’m itching to get back to it.
Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?
I do have a project I’m currently doing and very excited about but I’m not allowed to say what it is….
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection? Hard to pick just one so I’ll give you three. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: I flew through this book last year and absolutely loved it. IQ84 by Haruki Murakami: This is perhaps my favourite novel. He’s a phenomenal and beautiful writer. And finally Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Well, my favourite song is Qué Será, Será by Sly and the Family Stone. It’s this slow chilled funk version of the song made famous by Doris Day. It means ‘whatever will be will be’ and I find those good words to live by.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? I tend to get obsessed with and re-watch scenes in films rather than whole films. For example, the dinner scene in The Colour Purple. I watched that film with my mum and I’ve never gotten over Whoopi Goldberg in that. Just incredible. The Processing scene in The Master is another one I watch repeatedly, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman delivering a masterclass. I mean, anything Philip Seymour Hoffman was in to be honest I re-watch because he was, in my option, the best.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? Ma Rainys Black Bottom at the Royal Exchange. It was the first time I’d seen more than one Black person on a stage. And none of them were playing servants or maids. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith played Levee and he was so so brilliant. The whole experience was incredibly inspiring. I practically ran home to my parents afterwards telling them about all the amazing Black people I’d just watched on stage.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? I mean, the news makes me both sad and mad on a daily basis. The thing that’s made me glad this week is seeing my little second cousin. He’s one and a half and the cutest happiest little boy around.
Romeo & Juliet premieres at 9pm on Sunday 4th April on Sky Arts (UK) and 9pm on Friday 23rd April on PBS (US).
Keep up to date with Fisayo Akinade on his social media handles – Instagram