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Q&A with Joan Iyiola

The actress talks student days at Cambridge Uni, #MeToo and the influence of Black Panther on her RSC Duchess of Malfi.

Growing up in East London on the Isle of Dogs, Joan Iyiola moved to Essex at 16, studied law at Cambridge University and then decided to train as an actress at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. This season the beautiful, brainy and politically-passionate young graduate stars in Maria Aberg’s new RSC adaptation of John Webster’s 17thCentury revenge-style tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Its storyline about a high-flying woman embroiled in gender politics feels very current. I caught up with Joan in between rehearsals.

Why did you decide to swap law for acting after Cambridge? I grew up in a family of storytellers and performers but I was always going to be a barrister. My parents very cleverly never presented acting as a career.  But at Cambridge there is this amazing community of theatre, and it’s sparky! In just three years I performed in 18 shows! It was only in my third year of uni that I found the courage to say to myself and everyone around me that I wanted to be an actor.

Who were your contemporaries? Robert Icke (Associate Director of London’s Almeida Theatre) and I did shows together. Actor James Norton (Happy Valley, Grantchester, War & Peace & Mafia) is a good friend and was in the year above and also acts as a patron for my company, The Mono Box.

You worked with director Maria Aberg at the RSC on The White Devil – what was it like to be propelled into the title role for this production of The Duchess of Malfi? It was glorious, exciting and absolutely terrifying! But a very good friend wisely said to me if they’ve offered you the part they already know you can do it.

Maria Aberg (director). Rehearsal photos by Helen Maybanks

For people who don’t know the story can you give us a quick recap of The Duchess of Malfi? The Duchess is recently widowed at the start of the play and has two brothers, one of whom is her twin. She defies them both, marries below her class and has three children with Antonio, her steward. The men around her are out to ruin her. Her battle is to survive!

What kind of woman is the Duchess? A revolutionary. We’re in a moment where we are seeing this represented in our industry too, in campaigns such as #MeToo, Time’s Up and ERA 50:50 – there’s a real force for change and she represents that. She’s incredibly quick, humorous and a great poker player. She can give you five different faces – from dismissive to inviting. What I’m also loving about her is she has a lot of joy and she knows exactly who she is.

Joan Iyiola in rehearsal

As a young actress what does #MeToo mean to you? It’s a game-changer! There are a lot of unfortunate things that as a young actress you are exposed to. I had wished but didn’t quite believe that such dramatic change would happen in my lifetime. Now there’s a real hope, and we’re grabbing it.

Maria’s stylish modern-dress productions are full of invention. Her festival-like 2013 version of As You Like It (pictured below) included original music by Laura Marling. What has she done with Webster’s revenge tragedy? It’s modern-dress, edited heavily and thrilling. It’s all about gender politics and explores toxic masculinity, what it is and where it goes next. In collaboration with the RSC I have arranged some amazing coach trips from London to Stratford in a bid bring younger more diverse audiences to see the production. The way Maria thinks brings young people in!

As-You-Like-It, 2013, Rosalind-and-Orlando (Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann) 2013. Photo by Keith-Pattison, c RSC

Did you do a lot of research for the role?  Loads. You want to understand the history of the words that Webster wrote and also decipher what they mean today. I love researching but it’s always useful to ask yourself: why is there a need to tell this story today? Well, we are a world in chaos. I have read some contemporary books to prepare for the role including: historian Mary Beard’s Women and Power, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele and Shami Chakrabati’s On Women.

Which women inspired you? I love watching movies to immerse myself into a role, especially the early movies of Bette Davies. She was a powerhouse! I also looked to Allison Janney in The West Wing and within real life politics Macron’s wife Brigitte, the way that she holds herself has a strong military quality, whilst also celebrating femininity. As women we are so used to navigating space if a man is holding court, so my challenge has been to hold centre stage. I was inspired by inspirational forces like Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton and the recent Black Panther film where you are presented with strong black female warriors. And I believe that these women are present in our production.

l-r Will Brown, Joan Iyiola and Richard Hurst in rehearsal

Which actor do you most admire? Viola Davis.

Favourite musician right now? Kendrick Lamar. The music he produces is politically charged and lyrically exciting.

Best play in the last 12 months? Hamilton – it’s another game changer.

Best recent Film? Black Panther. Another game changer.

Best Book? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun.

Best TV Shows? The WireBreaking Bad and The Sopranos.

The company in rehearsal

The Duchess of Malfi runs from Thurs March 1 – Aug 3, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, rsc

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