Fisayo Akinade On ...Refugee BoyDate: 6 March 2013 Based on Benjamin Zephaniahís novel, a newly-commissioned adaptation of Refugee Boy arrives in Leeds this spring. Written by Lemn Sissay and directed by Gail McIntyre, the play tells the story of Alem, a teenager caught up in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea who finds himself abandoned as a refugee in England.
Returning to the West Yorkshire Playhouse after success in Waiting for Godot, Fisayo Akinade, who plays Alem, takes a break from rehearsals to discuss his preparations and the challenges of striking the right balance between politics and dramaÖ
How are preparations going? Are you excited about opening night? Really excited. We got to see the space yesterday and itís a pretty incredible set. Itís quite technical as thereís a lot of movement within the piece. But itís going to be a lovely show and quite a spectacle. Thereís a real sense of journey, which is perfect for Alem because heís never in one place for too long.
Are you enjoying being back at the Playhouse after the success of Waiting for Godot? I loved doing Godot; it was a great role. And itís really lovely to be back. Everyone is really friendly and open.
Whatís it like working with director, Gail McIntyre, and the cast? Iíve never had a cast that has made me laugh as much! Thereís been far too much corpsing and giggling! But we really get on, and that makes us care about the piece even more. The story weíre telling is already important, but all of us coming together has made it even more special for me. Itís my first time with a role this size, so itís been really nice to have such a supportive company; and to have Gail, whoís got such a clear idea of the show she wants to make. There was a real coming together of ideas, so itís been lovely. Obviously with a new play there are difficulties, but weíve had Ben Jancovich, our dramaturg, who has been great at ironing out a few problems.
How did you get involved with Refugee Boy? Were you familiar with Benjamin Zephaniahís novel? I read the novel when I was younger and I did the reading of the script about six months ago. When I heard it was being cast, I said ĎGail, please can I do it?í. Originally they wanted an Ethiopian actor, but Gail had the idea of all of us being storytellers, so it didnít matter where we were from. Fortunately I was cast, which Iím really happy about!
How emotionally demanding is the role? Itís difficult because it is very demanding and thereís a lot of energy needed to put the play on. But Gail let us just go for it at first, so it was a sense of experiencing it in its rawest form. Youíd paint with big bold colours, and then youíd paint a fine border around everything. So instead of just a messy collage of colours, youíve got a nice set pattern you can conjure up night after night.
Did you do any special research? Yes, I looked into Post Traumatic Stress syndrome, which can often happen in refugee situations. We also got to speak with an Eritrean refugee who lives in Leeds. There was an incident where someone threw something at his wall and it sounded like gunfire. He said he was flung back and fell to the floor because he felt that he was under attack. Weíre trying to recreate that kind of feeling; having something be in somebodyís head for the audience to see. I like to use images a lot, so I gathered a lot of pictures, specifically of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also of war in general. So when Iím trying to get myself into this state I can link the images to what Iím experiencing.
Do you find it hard to leave the role behind at the end of the day? There were a few days of very little sleep because my mind was ticking over. But itís gotten much easier and I think you have to create a distance. You work when youíre in the room and you work when youíre on stage. Then at the end of the day you go home and do something that has nothing to do with the play for a while; then you go back to the script and do some work. But I think itís really important to distance yourself.
Tell us a little bit about the storyline and your character of Alem Alem is a 14-year-old boy. Heís been moved from Ethiopia to Eritrea and back again because of the war between the two countries. Because itís too dangerous, his Dad takes him to England. Alem thinks itís a holiday, so he has a really wonderful time. Then he wakes up in the morning and his Dadís not there. So itís basically his journey of being a refugee. He has to deal with being abandoned and never really having time to settle anywhere; always wondering if his Dad will come back. Itís also about how the asylum process works and how that can be quite difficult for a young boy. The system doesnít cater to how old you are; itís always the same.
Do you think the play strikes the right balance between politics and drama? I think so. As well as the war side and court side of things, thereís also the joy of finding people that become Alemís new family. So I think it does strike the balance, which is a difficult thing to achieve in an hour and a half!
Finally, why should audiences come to see Refugee Boy and what would you like them to take away? Iíd like people to understand that when refugees come over to this country, theyíre not coming because they necessarily want to; itís because they have to. A lot of them are escaping terrible things that have happened to them. All we see in the newspapers is refugees coming into the country, but we have no idea what theyíve come from and what theyíre dealing with. So I think people should leave knowing a bit more of the process a refugee has to go through. But at the same time thereís a lot of hope and sense of innocence. So I think people should come to see a really well-told story and leave with a sense that there is hope after tragedy.
Refugee Boy is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 9 to 30 March 2013. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700. The Playhouse is also running a programme of related events. For further details, visit www.wyp.org.uk.
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