It is not the first time Nikki Amuka-Bird has played a character caught in a crisis. The Survivors actress tells Caroline Bishop why she was attracted to Welcome To Thebes, an epic new play at the National Theatre.
If Nikki Amuka-Bird wasn’t already nervous about playing Eurydice in Moira Buffini’s new play Welcome To Thebes, I may have just made her so. “I guess it is,” she says with surprise, when I suggest that this is her first lead role, and then she laughs. “I hadn’t really thought about it until you said, how funny!”
Not only does she play the central female role, but her debut at the National Theatre comes on the biggest of its three stages – the Olivier, making it only the second play by a woman to be staged there – in a company of 27.
Buffini’s play is billed as a ‘modern epic’ and this, Amuku-Bird explains, means that the playwright has entwined a modern narrative with the feel of a classic Greek tragedy. “It’s written poetically in a kind of verse form but we are talking about the internet and mobile phones and things we live with today. So we are kind of discovering a style for ourselves… I suppose it’s a bit like trying to do an accent or when you’re trying to play somebody from another culture, finding their voice and their speech patterns and rhythms.” She pauses, as though the enormity of the play is just hitting her. “It is quite a big task!”
Inspired by the first – and current – female president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Welcome To Thebes is set in an impoverished state in the aftermath of civil war as Amuka-Bird’s Eurydice tries to put her country back together again. In order to do so, she needs help from the leader of wealthy Athens, Theseus, played by David Harewood. “It’s the relationship between the leader of the third world, as we have imagined it, and the leader of the western world, and about how they respond to each other and how they can work together in the future and if it is possible for them to have a working, supportive relationship together.”
“It does feel a little bit like I’m learning about my own culture a bit more”
The play spoke to her on first reading, says the actress. “It’s not specified where Thebes is, in the play, but immediately I thought this is Africa, this is West Africa, we are looking at countries where civil war has been going on for decades and the violence is rife and the way people respond to their desperation is in uprising and killing, and it’s brutal. And at the centre of it was a woman trying to lead a country with no experience in politics but with such passion and such determination that the suffering and the killing should come to an end… and I was just gripped, basically.”
It is certainly a meaty role for her first lead. “As I get older the women get stronger,” she laughs. “I don’t know when that happens really. You want to play complex roles, you want to play roles where the character goes on a journey and where you are challenged, and I’ve been able to play those on telly and this is the first time I’ve played a role like this on stage.”
It may be another first for Amuka-Bird, but there are some similarities in theme between this play and some of her previous work. The premise of rebuilding after crisis is one which was apparent in both her last play, Dennis Kelly’s dark, strange take on King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Gods Weep, and the popular BBC drama series Survivors, in which she starred as the self-appointed leader of a post-apocalyptic Britain. Is she attracted to such themes? “It’s funny, I sometimes don’t see those similarities when I am reading scripts. If I think there’s a great part and a great story I will jump at it and only later realise, hang on, this is post-apocalyptic as well. But I think what is great about stories like that, end of the world scenarios, is that you are left to the very basest instincts of the characters. Their survival instincts tell you more about them than when they are having to suppress their instincts in the normal world, so I think it’s quite exciting to play. People pushed to their limits is where you discover, dramatically, the most intense parts of their characters.”
In Survivors, the challenges faced as a result of crisis led her character, politician Samantha, to impose her own dubious laws on the community to maintain order. “The hard thing was she started off quite sympathetic and as the series went on she became more and more ‘evil’ so it was quite hard because a lot of the time I would fight for her, think no she wouldn’t do that, she wouldn’t kill another person. But I guess they were desperate times!” she says with a smile.
“People pushed to their limits is where you discover, dramatically, the most intense parts of their characters”
How would Amuka-Bird act in a crisis, I wonder? “I have thought about that before. I think that perhaps one of my skills might be to bring people together, a bit like Julie Graham’s character [in Survivors], so to create a family unit or somehow remind people to care about each other, working in teams rather than braving it on my own.”
Survivors is just one of several high profile television series on the actress’s CV, including Small Island, Five Days and The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, which she filmed in Botswana under the late director Anthony Minghella. “Anthony was one of those amazing people who is always warm and gracious, no matter how much pressure he was under, and also can just say one thing to you that makes so much sense and can change your performance and improve your work, so I learnt a great deal from him. But mostly it just felt he was one of those people who would create a family atmosphere. So even on the days when you weren’t working, people would mostly return to set and have lunch together. I’d never really experienced that before at work, it just didn’t feel like work at all.”
She relished visiting Africa, as she has done on several jobs. Amuka-Bird was born on the African continent, in Nigeria, though she left when very young. “That’s why I find researching plays like this really rewarding and enriching,” she says of Welcome To Thebes. “It does feel a little bit like I’m learning about my own culture a bit more.”
But she hasn’t yet made the trip back to her country of birth. “My father’s there and I have extended family there, but that’s an adventure that I’m waiting for the right time to do.”
After leaving Nigeria as a child, Amuka-Bird was brought up by her mother in the UK and Antigua, where her mother still lives. “She had quite a tough upbringing so I think what was great for her was that she could allow me to do whatever I wanted to do. I think perhaps it [acting] might have been something she would have done if she had had the opportunities.”
“As I get older the women get stronger”
Amuka-Bird went to boarding school in Britain and intended to be a dancer, before injury forced her to reconsider. “I hurt my back and at that point was deciding what to do university-wise and I thought I would try for drama college because I knew you could do some dancing there but it didn’t have to take over everything. It was only really when I went to drama college that that world [acting] opened up to me and I fell in love with it and became obsessed like everybody else.”
Following LAMDA, her early career saw her performing with the RSC for the first time, where, despite being “very young and a bit green”, she got the opportunity to tour to Japan, and met her now husband, fellow actor Geoffrey Streatfeild. An Ian Charleson Award nomination followed in 2004 for playing Viola in Twelfth Night at Bristol Old Vic.
After all these career firsts, one remains tantalisingly out of reach. “I’d love to do a musical,” the ex-dancer says with passion, citing actors like Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin who have crossed the drama-musical divide. “They don’t come round very often if you are not in musical theatre. I would love to do a musical before I get too old!” Maybe the National Theatre should take note.
Welcome To Thebes plays as part of the National Theatre’s Travelex £10 season.