When you take on a lead role, says Zindzi Okenyo – particularly one in a problematic play such as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – you should also take on a leadership role, too.
“There’s an emotional load you have to carry,” Okenyo explains. “I think it’s the same for any woman in any workplace. You are the one doing a lot of the teaching and looking after people when the boys are – in this case – running around hiding behind plant pots and doing all the fun stuff. It can be exhausting.”
Okenyo is playing the role of Beatrice, the whip-smart singleton engaged in a battle of wits with Benedick. The repartee Shakespeare created for them is one of the engines of the play and has led to the popular notion that Much Ado is a kind of proto-screwball comedy, a ding-dong battle of the sexes.
But in the 21st century, Okenyo says, Much Ado should endeavour to strike hard on the play’s heavier plot string, the story of Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, a young women whom Shakespeare gives comparatively little to say but whose honour becomes the talk of the town.
Led into believing that her reputation is other than spotless, her gullible husband-to-be Claudio calls off their wedding. Hero finds herself in disgrace.
“Beatrice is a great character to play because she’s so smart and so full of pride but for me, the play has to be about Hero, and so I was very keen to build a real relationship between those characters and with Vivienne [Awosoga, who plays Hero in this production] and trying as much as possible to empower her.”
Much Ado: What’s the problem?
“I think the play has a lot of problems when you look at it from today’s perspective, but that’s why I want to do shows like this,” Okenyo says.
“I like meeting those problems head on. As an artist, I like to question everything I’m performing in. But I’m more rigorous when it comes to questioning Shakespeare and the classics because you have to ask, why are we still doing them?
“Even now, I still find it really tricky that a lot of the second half of the play is about Claudio getting a chance to be redeemed, to marry Hero all over again,” says Okenyo. For me, the biggest problem in the play for me is that we’re asked to forgive him – and all the other men, as well.
“In the end, you have to do the play but I’ve always looked for moments when Beatrice can subvert some of those moments.”
One of the pleasures in undertaking a national tour with Bell Shakespeare, Okenyo says, is that you have months to work this stuff out.
“I’ve had the experience of really, really being able to stick with it and totally unpack all the problems for myself,” Okenyo says. “Even now, after 75 shows, there are times when I’m saying to myself, ‘gosh, that’s what it means!’ The people in this play are so inconsistent and I think that’s so true in real life.
“Sometimes, in contemporary playwriting, it’s all a bit neat,” Okenyo says. “But here I’m playing a character who’s so in love yet so full of rage. What I’ve discovered is that giving in to the inconsistency and being really committing to it is a really fruitful experience.”
On the road
The opportunity to tour a show for months and devolop a deep relationship with character and story over that time was one of the reasons Okenyo decided to sign up to Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
There isn’t another experience quite like it in the Australian theatre landscape, she says.
“I’ve always believed that art is crucial to society but when you work outside of the cities, you really see how important it is. People’s appreciation for what you are doing is really immediate.”
“And you also see how important the arts centres and theatres are to people in these communities,” Okenyo adds. “Whether it’s a new facility like the Glasshouse at Port Macquarie or the beautiful old Civic Theatre in Newcastle, you really see what a special relationship people have with those buildings. There’s a sense of ownership and pride, and there’s also a relationship between those theatre-goers and Bell Shakespeare, something that’s developed over the years.”
Because of that, the experience of performing what is a problem play in many aspects has been “consistently joyous.”
“It’s been really refreshing for me to be working outside of that saturated, city environment,” Okenyo says. “To be in a play that make everyone laugh at the same time or go quite in the same moment every night … I don’t think I’ve had that experience before.”
Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Sydney Opera House until November 25