Interview with actor Lashana Lynch

Lashana Lynch as Rita - photo credit Manuel Harlan.

Editor's comment : Educating Rita is one of those plays that you can't help being touched by, particularly if you are from a working class background and struggling to better your life. It certainly had a great impact on me as a teenager when I watched Julie Walters (Rita) and Michael Caine (Frank) play the roles in the film now brought to the stage by Lashana Lynch and Lenny Henry at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Lashana Lynch caught up with Louise Quelch from Female Arts to discuss this production and the importance of colour blind and gender blind casting.

Educating Rita was first produced in 1980. What makes this production relevant for a 2015 audience?

Willy Russell, like any great writer, has this beautiful ability to make their stories transcend through time. Education, class, social hierarchy, abusive relationships, feeling like the "alien" in your family and political troubles will always be subjects that resonate with audiences immediately; no matter what age or background. And of course, the characters are just brilliant and completely relatable.

How did you come to be cast as Rita?

My agent told me about the audition for Rita and it instantly filled me with an equal amount of excitement and fear. I knew how much of a responsibility it would be but I made the decision early on to just go in there and get it. I met Michael Buffong, the director and Lisa Makin, Creative Producer at CFT with my lines learnt, an annotated script, a well thought out costume and a bag of nerves. I never get nervous for auditions anymore, so I knew I really wanted it. I got recalled and read opposite Lenny, who was lovely and really calmed my nerves. And then the next morning, I was offered the part! The whole process sounds easier than it actually was. When you want a part, it can consume your mind for weeks on end, and this most definitely did.

Which parts of your personality will your friends recognise in your portrayal of Rita?

They'd probably say being a bit loopy, always making jokes out of everything and being emotional about most things connects me to Rita. Of late, a friend reminded me how much of an open book I am, and she's 100% right. Like Rita, I'm a what-you-see- is-what-you-get kind of person.

Can you describe the importance of theatre companies, like Chichester, employing colour blind casting? Do you feel it has impacted the story of Educating Rita?

Myself and Lenny decided to do this play because we wanted to tell a great story with honestly and heart. I don't believe race has anything to do with telling a story like this, that needs to be told in the way it needs to be told. But for the sake of this industry, it's important for companies like CFT to make colour blind casting the norm for us to eventually be relieved of the, 'Oh, I wonder why they're black in this version?' thought. We live in a multicultural world, casting should always reflect that. We'll get there, someday.

You also played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet for National Theatre's The Shed. Which aspects of the character did you enjoy exploring, which aren't typically available to female actors?

I've always gravitated towards bold, physically strong and determined characters like Tybalt. I'd made the decision to make her a slight tomboy, which helped me explore the physicality and that undeniable fire in her belly. Anger is not an emotion I think I even possess, so that was a nice challenge for me. Personally, I've never been sent a theatre script with a 'leader of the pack' kind of character like Tybalt. A lot of us actresses want to be in roles where we can fight and use weapons and be in charge, so I found playing her very exciting.

Were there any constraints you found in playing a role written to be a male character?

Oh no, absolutely not. Once I knew Tybalt was now female, it was just about characterising her in the way I would any other character. Bringing a male energy to the role definitely helped. I do actually prefer Tybalt as a female, I think it really works and should be done more often.

Do you see a future of colour and gender blind casting?

Absolutely! Why can't we have a high powered female lawyer on our screens regularly? Why can't we have a black, Asian or mixed race superhero? Granted, many people want this for the industry. But the fight to make that a normality is mammoth and it’s still such an uphill struggle. But I truly believe we will get there. We must. I'm in the arts to break barriers and touch minds, I can't possibly do that without those in charge of casting being open minded. And if I don't see a future in it, then this would all be for nothing.

This is the first full Chichester Festival season following a major redevelopment last year, and there is an exciting range of productions. What will you be watching?

I really wanted to see as much as I could whilst here but schedules have meant I've missed most of them. I'll be watching Mack & Mabel in the last week of our run, which I'm really looking forward to. And I'll try to come back to Chichester at some point to see the Chekhov plays.

What's next for you?

After this, a well-needed voice rest! And then I'm looking forward to getting stuck into another great script. Everyone's advising me to take a holiday. But at moment, I want to work on great new work and develop a couple of my own scripts that I'm looking forward to sharing. So watch this space.

(c) Louise Quelch for Female Arts / Lashana Lynch 2015

Educating Rita runs until 25 July at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Limited availability, with £8.50 tickets for 16 – 25 year olds. Visit cft.org.uk or call 01243 781312. www.cft.org.uk

‘But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’?’

World-weary lecturer, Frank, has never met anyone like plain-speaking hairdresser Rita - until the Open University brings them together.

Frank knows plenty. He can tell Rita that Yeats isn’t only a wine lodge, and that there’s a difference between Jane Austen and Ethel Austin. He can explain in detail why Chekhov is a comic genius.

But he doesn’t know that learning can be dangerous and addictive. As Rita grows in confidence and ability, Frank begins to fear that her desire for academic knowledge might bury the fascinating, fresh woman who has brought him back to life.

Writer: Willy Russell’s comic masterpiece has entertained audiences around the globe since it premiered in 1980, and went on to become an award-winning film.

Director: Michael Buffong is the acclaimed Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre Company, where his recent work includes All My Sons and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.

Frank: Lenny Henry makes his Chichester debut as Frank. His theatre credits include The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre and award-winning performances in West End productions of Fences and Othello.

Rita: Also making her Chichester debut is Lashana Lynch playing Rita. Her recent credits include Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre’s The Shed.

http://www.cft.org.uk/5341/EDUCATING-RITA/812#-Overview

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