Bafta and Golden-Globe nominated actress Cathy Tyson takes on the iconic role of Lady Bracknell in a new Made at Curve production of The Importance of Being Earnest starting this week.
The play runs at Curve in Leicester from Wednesday October 5 to Thursday October 27.
Cathy talks comedy, reimagining Oscar Wilde and what it means to play a black Lady Bracknell.
Q: What do you think it is about The Importance of Being Earnest that resonates with audiences and what appeals to you about the play?
CT: As soon as I think of Oscar Wilde I think of wit! What drew me to it was that I’d done very little humour in my career! I like to make people laugh. When I was younger, I read The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince and my mother kept a book of his stories years ago. Oscar Wilde’s a hero as well as a wit and a renaissance man.
Q: What drew you to the role of Lady Bracknell?
CT: I think the lines are what drew me. Lady Bracknell is very blunt and she’s hilarious! She can be quite cruel. Sometimes we have to be quiet and keep opinions to ourselves but she just comes out and says it! She lacks empathy. And I’ve played very few upper-class characters in my career, so it’s been a joy having fun with this new voice in me of Lady Bracknell. And, you know, it’s daft!
Q: Was it intimidating taking on such an iconic role?
CT: It was daunting at first. I’ve been playing about with these lines for weeks in my home so I feel a bit of ownership now. Lady Bracknell is so well known. I’ve played Ophelia, I’ve played Cleopatra and lots of other famous characters but people have a really personal view on Lady Bracknell. They quote lines back at you! It’s lovely because it’s theirs as well.
Q: What’s your approach to those infamous lines likes ‘a handbag’?
CT: The way I approach it is to listen to how the other actor delivers the line before and to keep that sense of disturbed curiosity alive through that whole section. My problem is I hope I’m not going to laugh because she’s taking all this very, very seriously indeed! I laugh even when I’m just going over my lines! She’s a real tonic!
Q: You’ve talked about the lack of good lead characters for mid-career black women, where as many white actresses find traditional period work. Now you are playing one of those classically white period roles, do you think that’s significant?
CT: I hope when we are on stage what will come across is the character’s personality and I’d like audiences to see the colour as well and let that work on their imaginations. Where has somebody like this come from? Who were aristocratic black people? Queen Victoria’s goddaughter was Sara Forbes Bonetta and she was a dark skinned black woman. She was a princess from Africa. What’s been one of the main challenges is researching black characters from that era. So much black history needs to be excavated. I’ve done a small bit of researching in the black history archive. And if this type of diverse casting is going to go on, this is one of the biggest challenges because black people were not well documented. It is a diverse cast which will challenge traditional perspectives of this play but I’m as English as anyone out there. People will be getting an English rose because I am one! You know what I mean?
Q: This isn’t another traditional adaptation of the play, how is director Nikolai Foster’s vision different?
CT: I know there are period costumes and I know there is that set with all the mirrors. Mirrors can be extremely claustrophobic! I mean the audience can see themselves as well! You can’t get away. It adds to the stifling feel, especially for Lady Bracknell. There is a conflict. She didn’t marry for love; she married for money. She’s not from the aristocracy. That’s the difficulty with this character, trying to find her origins. She’s an arch opportunist. She works the room; she works the society. And she didn’t let her origins prevent her from entering aristocratic society. A main theme is deceit. All of the characters use deceit: the young men and the young women and definitely Lady Bracknell! She trades in it!
Q: Tell us a bit about your work with your theatre company Pitch Lake Productions?
CT: I’m interested in new writing. We’ve got our second play written now and I will be playing a lead role in it! There are few lead roles that mid-career black women are able to access in theatre and TV. Our company was formed to try and rectify this. We also want to help young black and minority ethnic people at the beginning of their career and foster leadership skills. The ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ has highlighted a dearth of black people in leadership roles in arts organisations and we want to address this.
Q: It’s the 30th anniversary of Mona Lisa this year, how do you feel about the film now?
CT: Mona Lisa was wonderful. It gave me a big break, didn’t it? I haven’t seen it for ages so I’ve forgotten the details of the story! But I feel very, very grateful for it. What can I say?! I’m grateful for all the jobs I get given! Everyone, however small, is a joy to do. And I just feel grateful that I’m still in this profession. So I’ve spent 30 years in it, in this gypsy like life where you leave home for two and a half months. But you know I’m just grateful people wantto come out their house and see a play in the evening. I get a lot of pleasure from live theatre. But I’m indebted to Mona Lisa. I should watch it again!
Q: What can audiences expect from this new production of The Importance of Being Earnest?
CT: People should expect a lot of fun! Come and see it! It’s very uplifting. Come and enjoy Wilde’s words and his witticisms! And see how it relates to modern day and learn about the past! Come to pay homage to the wonderful writer Oscar Wilde who triumphed over difficulties to raise a smile and give such an incredible creative gift.
For tickets visit www.curveonline.co.uk or call the box office on 0116 242 3595.