How do you go from having £100 cash to your name and working as a cleaner to leading productions in the most distinguished British theatre companies in less than a decade? By making tough, sometimes controversial decisions, Ruined star Lucian Msamati tells Matthew Amer.
Controversy, in its many shapes, seems to have been stalking Lucian Msamati recently. No matter which job he takes, there is always someone ready to have their feathers ruffled.
His last stage outing, the Rufus Norris-directed Death And The King’s Horseman at the National Theatre, saw the UK-born, Zimbabwe-raised actor ‘whiting up’ for his role, a move which unsurprisingly enraged some commentators. But even the well-received BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency brought out the naysayers who claimed it portrayed an unrealistic rose-tinted view of African life.
Msamati is unfazed by such comment and intelligent enough to have a counterargument to any accusation aimed his way. His latest project, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined, sees him straying into territory which again provokes a strong response due to the tough subjects in which it deals. Set in a war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children, the story revolves around a bar/brothel run by Mama Nadi, where the trappings of war must be left at the door, though the effects of the country’s vicious tribulations can be clearly seen in Mama Nadi’s girls.
The subject matter is nothing if not dark, with the show’s title coming from the description of one of the girls who is sexually abused with a bayonet. “You can’t not go there,” Msamati explains about the dark heart of the piece. “You can’t help but go there because it’s so fascinating. We know that to get the audience there [the actors] need to go there. That’s the terrifying, joyous, egotistical challenge of it. You do have to plunge deeply and darkly into it, but we also make a point of gathering at the end of every show and saying ‘Let’s leave this here.’”
“To be honest, it only occurred to us much later on that what we were doing was dangerous.”
Submerging himself in such disturbing areas of humanity is a double-edged sword; it pushes Msamati to his limits of emotional tolerance, but by doing that offers him the ultimate test as an actor. It helps that he is exploring these depths in the company of friends; he has worked with playwright Nottage, director Indhu Rubasingham and actress Jenny Jules before. The quartet previously collaborated on the Tricycle theatre production of Fabulation in 2006, while Jules, who Msamati describes as “the cherry on the cake” of this production, also appeared alongside him in Death And The King’s Horseman.
Nottage, unusually for a playwright, was present for the majority of the rehearsal period. While a writer will often dip in and out of rehearsals, offering insight at the beginning and returning later in the process, Msamati describes the experience of Ruined as “a test case for a harmonious union of a director and a writer in the rehearsal room. Lynn was always a presence, but she was never overbearing, she never stuck her nose in. She was just there, part of the team, part of the madness and the craziness that went on.”
Ruined comes to London’s Almeida theatre with a Pulitzer Prize-winning reputation, and for Msamati, the combination of script, creative team and co-star would have been very hard to decline, but the piece’s depiction of a worn-torn, violent, imploding Africa could be seen as an odd choice for an actor who, in the past, has been outspoken about a representation of the continent “painted in broad strokes and wrapped in a spiritual, physical and intellectual grass skirt and drums”.
“This could easily have been turned into an issues-driven play, because the subject matter is dark and apparent and is epidemic. Quite frankly, it’s shocking what people are capable of. Rather than that story and those battles being fought through political diatribe, it’s told through the people on the ground, day to day, trying to get through their lives, which is what, essentially, we all do… except for investment bankers and politicians.” Msamati finishes with a laugh. It is a habit that runs throughout our meeting. No matter how political the discussion, how controversial the subject, he is never afraid to attack it with a joke or poke fun at it.
“I still find myself like a kid staring into the proverbial candy store going ‘Wow, how the hell did I do this?'”
The issue of ‘whiting up’ to play a colonial Brit is treated in much the same way: “I’ve played horses, geese, sheep, Arabs, Cubans, Americans, men, women; I’ve played all sorts and I do not recall getting a single letter from the RSPCA about my portrayal of the equine situation and how it does bad things for pigs around the world.”
Yes, it may be a slightly disingenuous, side-stepping take on the issues surrounding a black actor donning white face paint in an age where a reversal of this would cause uproar, but having moved from Zimbabwe where “I was the majority, I was the norm” back to Britain, he fully understands the politics behind the artistic decision. “It all depends on the context and in that particular context it worked and worked well. It elevated the real theme of the play to its highest level, I think.” He was keen to ensure, when taking on the challenge, that he and Jules were playing “real characters, not caricatures”, and was delighted when a midwife visiting his partner, who had seen the production, commented that she had to be convinced that the white couple were played by black actors.
He does not have a joke to accompany discussion of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the hit BBC series in which he played male love interest and mechanic JLB Matekoni. Instead, he jumps to the series’ defence without me even mentioning the claim that it promoted a twee, patronising view of Africa. “Factually,” he begins, “Botswana is not only a very stable country, but a very wealthy country and has been for many years. Why, all of a sudden, must 440 million people across Africa be living in one world? It doesn’t happen like that.”
Having stated his case for the defence early, he goes on to admit that the books on which the series was based weren’t “my cup of tea”, and that director Anthony Minghella admitted that the production team were “a bunch of middle-aged white people trying to tell a story about a world we have nothing in common with, that we don’t understand”.
Yet what they produced was the tale of a strong woman setting up her own business, fighting against the odds and finding love; a warming story with a strong heart and an important message. “What is disempowering about that?” Msamati asks, clearly still flabbergasted that anyone should feel the need to kick holes in such a positive production.
Sitting in the Almeida theatre bar on a bright April afternoon, Msamati is thoroughly entertaining and engaging, never shying away from questions, happily discussing any subject from African stereotyping to the joy of filming the current series of Dr Who in his hypnotising, rumbling bass tones. He is a cool, laid back customer, belying the determination and drive that has transformed him from the Edinburgh Festival performer with £100 in his pockets to an actor who counts the title role in the RSC’s Pericles, a trio of plays at the Tricycle theatre, The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Overwhelming at the National Theatre among his credits.
“Quite frankly, it’s shocking what people are capable of”
The coolness, it seems, has always been part of his character. He started acting in Zimbabwe, where, with a group of friends, he formed Over The Edge Theatre Company. In a country presided over by Robert Mugabe, they often performed satirical work, particularly on their improv nights, building an impressive international reputation. To me, that represents a brave decision. “I can understand why you say that,” Msamati replies. “To be honest, it only occurred to us much later on that what we were doing was dangerous. We were just a bunch of young folk out of university, loving theatre and going ‘Let’s do stuff that makes us laugh, let’s talk about things people can see every day.’” What they were seeing was the same as the rest of the Zimbabwean population and the international community. It included farm invasions and fuel queues. In the end, some topics had to be banned from the company’s regular improv nights, not because they were inflammatory, but such was the audiences’ thirst for sketches touching on those themes that the cast were bored of “riffing on them”.
“Whether or not the authorities paid us any heed… There are those that say nowadays that we were preaching to the converted so it didn’t really matter, but I don’t know. I’ll never know. Only those that have been watching…” he trails off.
Even discussing such peril, it is clear Msamati wouldn’t have had it any other way, and the smile on his face as he describes his projects shows that he has lost none of the joy and passion that encouraged him to take a leap of faith nearly a decade ago and follow his acting dream. “I still find myself like a kid staring into the proverbial candy store going ‘Wow, how the hell did I do this?’” he grins. This, he confides, is especially the case with Ruined: “Truly and honestly, my unbiased feeling is that we really have something special. I may be damned or praised for saying that, it’s up to people to judge. It’s up to you to decide. I will say no more.”