Pathways to Shakespeare

Rakie Ayola

February 18, 2013

Rakie AyolaThe present production of The Winter's Tale is like a symphony of anger, its interest arising from the different vocal instruments on which it is played to interpret that anger. And it has the finest Paulina I have ever seen, giving her rightly the position she deserves in the play's dialectic.She actually has 10% of the play's lines - Hermione has 6% and Leontes 20%.

Rakie says that Shakespeare keeps coming her way: she has played in Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, TheMerchant of Venice, Macbeth and Hamlet. But there was a time when she regarded Shakespeare as not for her.

Rakie's mother was from Sierra Leone, her father from Nigeria but she was brought up by her mother's cousin and his wife in Cardiff. It was her adoptive mother who encouraged her in her drama aspirations.

In primary school she would take part in any performance experience; she loved acting. At 10/11 she started to experiment with accent, partly due to her identification with characters she loved in books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. She affected a mid-Atlantic accent, really taking it on board so that people would inquire 'Where are you from?' She was really from the middle of Ely but in her imagination she was elsewhere.

She went on to Glen Ely High School where she encountered Macbeth for O Level and then studied Hamlet for A Level but there was no performance aspect to the classroom teaching.

Her first Shakespeare in performance was when they were taken to see Roger Rees in Hamlet at the RSC. But what might have been a pathway to Shakespeare simply wasn't. Sitting at the very back of the balcony in the old RST, the theatrical experience just didn't reach them, she says.She just felt excluded. Shakespeare? So what? would have been her response at 17.

But she was passionate about acting. Outside school she was a member of several Welsh Youth theatres and went to The National Youth Theatre of Wales. She took it entirely upon herself to apply for a place at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Someone suggested Kate's final speech from The Taming of the Shrew as one of her audition pieces and with little more than a working knowledge of Kiss Me Kate she went along. She was given an unconditional offer at 17 and a full grant, having said that there was no way her father could pay for her to study Drama. Six months away from her A Level exams in English, French and Music she left school.

She went to Drama school with a good knowledge of Roger and Hammerstein musicals but totally unprepared for the Strindberg and Pinter she encountered. But, she says, it was their job to cut through the amateur musical fluff she came with and in her second year they embarked on a Shakespeare project.

First there was a hammering in of the iambic pentameter followed by two productions: either you would be acting in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth.

'I thought I might be selected as a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and was surprised when friends started to congratulate me on my luck! What was this?' She had been cast as Lady Macbeth.

She learnt by 'acting through it - riding the verse until its musicality hit me.' It was a surprise. a revelation and when she left she was pleased with what she considered would be her one successful Shakespeare.

But in 1990 she auditioned for Moving Being Theatre, securing the role of Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream and she was now thinking " I'm getting on ok with this Shakespeare."

In 1992 she found herself touring Wales as Portia in The Merchant of Venice and in 1994, directed by Bill Alexander, she played Ariel in The Tempest. Richard McCabe was Caliban.

She learned a lot from these two, she tells me: Bill's knowledge of Shakespeare and verse speaking and Richard's insistence on looking in the text for your own interpretation of character, perhaps a significant line. For her it was the 15 years' imprisonment in a tree by Sycorax that sparked her imagination into working on what solitary confinement would result in.

While working on Hamlet with Bill Alexander that Rakie first met her husband and when they worked together again two years later, on Twelfth Night, they became a couple.

Rakie has played both Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night.Olivia she found easier to engage with. She says that she loves playing characters who are more articulate than she could ever be.

She has moved from being aware of the beauty of the language to finding meaning in it and the techniques to convey a reading of a line through chosen stress. But she admits that on a first reading she may understand only 50%.

'You have to do the work to understand it, Don't be put off so that you think- they get it / I don't.'

She finds Paulina in The Winter's Tale a great part. There are assumptions made about her - that she knows the outcome of the play's events. But she doesn't know what has happened to Perdita. She believes that what is lost might be found and lives in this hope. Her tragedy is that although she sees Perdita united with her mother and father, she loses her husband. There is no restoration of the past for her.

Rakie would love to play Isabella. I think the implications of a black Isabella, with a black Claudio, her brother, might prove exciting for a director to explore. I hope she gets the chance.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare