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One to Watch: Sope Dirisu

This talented Birmingham Uni economics graduate discusses his RSC debut as brilliant Roman general Coriolanus opposite award-winning Hadyn Gwynne.

You might recognise London-born Sope Dirisu from critically-acclaimed sci-fi drama series Humans as synth Fred, Sonny Sullivan in ITV’s The Halcyon and Michael Antwi in BBC 1’s excellent Undercover with Adrian Lester and Sopie Okonedo. He also set the stage alight wowing audiences and critics as legendary boxing champ Muhammad Ali in One Night in Miami at Donmar Warehouse, London, last autumn.  The super-talented 26-year-old actor from Luton now makes his RSC debut as the lead in the Shakespeare tragedy about a brilliant Roman general, opposite award-winning Hadyn Gwynne.

How does it feel making your professional RSC debut as Coriolanus? 

This is my dream come true. I didn’t necessarily know I was going to be an actor when I was at school but you think of The National, The RSC and The Globe as somewhere everyone aspires to be. I want it to be the best piece of work I can do, given my limitations. I just want to entertain and challenge our audience. I need to work so hard and be the best I can be. We have likened Coriolanus to an athlete like Cristiano Ronaldo.

Angus Jackson (director) and Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus)

Is it an action-packed, full-on physical production?

There’s a really great fight scene in the first act. Coriolanus is a very visceral character but the play is balanced towards the intellectual. There’s a lot of challenging chats. It’s a very political play and can be used as propaganda. It was banned in France in the 1930s and in post-war Germany. What’s good is that we’re not preaching to the audience.

What’s it like having Hadyn Gwynne playing your mum, Volumnia?

She’s wonderful! The day before we started rehearsals we went to The Giggling Squid for dinner – my favourite place in Stratford –  to get to know each other. We always chat and she looks after me like a mum. There’s a bit of a parallel between the way Volumnia raises her children and the way people of ethnicity raise their children in England. There is the desire and drive for their children to be the best they can be. I can see part of my mum and aunties in Volumnia. But my mum loves me and would never want me to go to war.

Haydn Gwynne (Volumnia) and Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus). Photo: Helen Maybanks

You’ve played Muhammed Ali, Fred –in Humans– and now Coriolanus – do they share any traits in common? 

Ali and Coriolanus are both men of action, that’s not just in the physical act of fighting but they stood up for what they believed in and acted on them. Coriolanus fought for his beliefs and the values of Rome. Valour is the chief characteristic of a Roman solider. Ali says he’d rather not fight against Sonny Liston if he could not reveal publicly his commitment as a Muslim. They both were deeply principled people. Fred, whilst being the defender and protector of his family, is a lot more stoic. Love and defence are parallels all three share. Coriolanus has a deep love for Rome, which he defended in war; Fred defends his family and the right to live as a synth- eventually; while Ali was put up as a defender of his race.

Sope playing synth, Fred, in Humans; Sonny Sullivan in ITV’s The Halcyon and Peter in The Mill on Channel 4.

You decided to become an actor while studying Economics at Birmingham University? 

Yes, while my friends were earning lots of money! But that wouldn’t have made me happy. It wasn’t completely clear until towards the end of my degree. I was acting at uni, playing alot of American football and met some of my best friends there. Sometimes you need to really know. I was totally naïve of the industry.

What happened next?

I came here and auditioned for the RSC’s amateur Open Stages Programme and was cast as Pericles in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at The Courtyard. It allowed me to go to London with my head up. I then joined the National Youth Theatre’s Rep Company – they chose eight boys and eight girls – I love the equality! We performed three plays in the West End.

Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Chiwetel Ejifor and Orlando Bloom are some of the National Youth Theatre’s alumni – how did you find the NYT’s rigorous rep season?

It was a wonderful platform for someone who had been to uni, and a great transition. It allows you to learn on the job, practise things on stage, deal with different audiences and how to put on a show even when you’re not feeling great. You learn stamina. Sometimes I do get a little self-conscious. There’s a tool-kit people get at drama school. They might be able to unlock these tools, for example, if they get stage fright. I rely a lot on instinct. One of the cast Ben Hall (Donald in ITV’s The Durrell’s) went to Guildhall has this amazing process with the script. He’s been really kind and explained it to me. Angus Jackson is great and also quite generous. He has a really incisive and clinical head on his shoulders. We have some great conversations.

Director of the RSC’s Rome season, Angus Jackson

Are you looking forward to performing Coriolanus at The Barbican?

I went to see Benedict Cumberbatch there in Hamlet and it was just vast. The set was amazing!  The actors were running for 10 minutes full-pelt on stage –  it was that big. The RST is the biggest stage I’ve performed on, and the Barbican is much bigger! I’ve been working solidly with the RSC’s voice-coaches.

And the Beard – will it stay or will it go? 

I’m a big Arsenal fan and Olivier Giroud has this big mid-length beard. I went for something similar. A beard is one of the great signs of masculinity. I don’t feel my hair is my own. I’m totally at the mercy of my next job.

Beardy-men: Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus) and Olivier Giroud

One Night in Miami really resonated with London audiences. What was it like to work on

I’d never worked at the Donmar before. We got a standing ovation on press night, in preview and throughout the run. Josie Rourke, the artistic director and executive producer, Kate Pakenham, both said: “This doesn’t happen here”. It was the icing on the cake – really rich. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah fosters love in rehearsal room. It was a very special show and I’m in touch with all the guys. We have a WhatsApp group. Arinze Kene (who played Sam Cook) is in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic – he’s showing off his pipes again.

Sope as Cassius Clay (left) in One Night in Miami with David Ajala playing Jim-Brown

What was your first ever acting role? 

I was supposed to be the Star in the school nativity but had appendicitis and couldn’t do it. My school, Bedford Modern, used to bring us up the the RSC every couple of years. I saw Tamsin Greig in The Swan playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. It was definitely ‘an event’. My first role was in Macbeth in Year 9, I joined the National Youth Theatre in 2006 and used to go up to London in the summer.

Which actors have most influenced your career?

My mum is a massive Denzel fan…Denzel, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are a real inspiration.  Before Coriolanus, I came to see Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC. I thought Martin Hutson was excellent as Cassius in Julius Caesar – and had to go up and tell him!

Clockwise from top: Chiwetel Ejiofor in Half a Yellow Moon with Thandie Newton; Martin Hutson in Julius Caesar; Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences.

Coriolanus is at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon is on now until Sat Oct 14 and live in cinemas on Wed Oct 11, Box office: 01789 403493. It will transfer to the Barbican for a limited London Season from Nov 6-18.


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