As Notting Hill local Nikki Amuka-Bird takes to the stage in her first Ibsen production, The Lady from the Sea, she tells The Resident why this particular role is so thrilling for her
Lead image: Nikki Amuka-Bird (photo courtesy Pip for CLD Communications)
There are a lot of things that acclaimed actor Nikki Amuka-Bird is grateful for, and being given the chance to perform an Ibsen masterpiece is one of them. There is something infectious about the way in which Amuka-Bird oozes happiness, contentment and a sense of freedom and openness.
As we chat, she is completely ecstatic. The news has recently broken that Kwame Kwei-Armah – who is currently directing her as Ellida in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea – is to succeed David Lan as Artistic Director of the Young Vic, becoming the first British African-Caribbean artistic director of a major UK theatre, and she has sneaked out of a post-rehearsal celebratory dinner to chat with me.
It’s clear that Amuka-Bird holds a lot of respect for Kwei-Armah. She particularly appreciates the freedom he allows in rehearsals. In fact, it’s so free that they start every rehearsal with a dance.
‘It’s great working with Kwei-Armah as he makes it fun. It’s an intense play with themes of grief, intense romance and redemption – the characters are all in some way yearning for a better life,’ she says. ‘We do this thing where we get there every day and we dance for half an hour because Kwei-Armah believes it should be fun and exhilarating. It gives us the energy to then become these slightly tragic figures.’
Although she wasn’t innately immersed within theatre growing up, it’s obvious when talking to Amuka-Bird that she was inspired by her mother. ‘My mum travelled a lot and she would always bring me presents back of films because she couldn’t take me, but she wanted me to see the world too,’ she explains.
‘She felt like that was a great way for me to do it so I actually learned to read play, record, stop and rewind first.’ She takes this inspiration from childhood with her mother and uses it in the play. Kwei-Armah has chosen to set it in the Caribbean in the 1950s as he felt when he read it that the setting connected with his upbringing in Grenada.
I’ve always wanted to play a part like this and it feels like a rite of passage as an actor
This is why he was keen to have Amuka-Bird performing it as well, as she grew up between Notting Hill and Antigua. ‘He wanted to bring it closer to our own experience, not to alter it in any way, but for it to feel authentic to our cultural backgrounds and to offer a diverse take on it,’ she says.
‘It makes it more contemporary and perhaps more familiar to modern London. Other than that he has kept it true to the story and for me, it’s really exciting to have a go at a classic in this way. Usually Ibsen is set in its own period of the Victorian era so historically it’s quite difficult to make it diverse.’
There is a sense of excitement about both the role for Amuka-Bird and for the pushing of boundaries. ‘I’ve always wanted to play a part like this and it feels like a rite of passage as an actor; some of the actors that I admire the most carry these sorts of plays,’ she says.
‘I feel like Ibsen writes some of the most psychologically complex roles for women, which makes it challenging and at the beginning it was a real baptism of fire. You feel like you can cut your teeth in this role and come away stronger.’
What’s lovely while talking to Amuka-Bird is that she is so grateful and humbled by every opportunity she has been offered – she seems to see the best in every situation and exudes passion. Something that she is particularly passionate about is the Donmar Warehouse and how the establishment runs in a forward-thinking way.
‘The Donmar is fantastic and they make the building feel like home by doing company lunches and ensuring a good atmosphere,’ she says. ‘The vegetables that they cook for these are grown on the property and there’s a big community feel about the place. It makes it easier for us to let go and lose our inhibitions when rehearsing, we feel in a safe place.’
Having played some incredible roles recently, including in Luther and her hugely hailed role in the Bafta nominated adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW, I wonder what attracts Amuka-Bird to the roles she plays. ‘I look never to repeat myself,’ she tells me.
I love people like Meryl Streep who are shape-shifters and chameleons, so I’m always looking for something that, physically as well as mentally, needs a new form of expression
‘I love people like Meryl Streep, who are shape-shifters and chameleons, so I’m always looking for something that, physically as well as mentally, needs a new form of expression. I feel that I learn something new about the human experience when I enter a life that I wouldn’t get to experience otherwise.’
It’s important to Amuka-Bird to reconnect with loved ones and the places she holds most dear as she finds that acting can be an anti-social career. ‘You become all consumed by it,’ she says. ‘So I make sure I spend time with the things and people that make me happiest.
‘I grew up in Notting Hill and it’s where we first moved to, my mum and I, when we came from Nigeria. I love it there so I like to enjoy the parks when I’m free. I feel very lucky to be able to feel that close to nature in the city. I’m happy when not working to spend time in cafés and watch the multi-cultural, beautiful people.’
Although not able to tell us too much, Amuka-Bird has some exciting projects in the pipeline and Hard Sun, where she plays , is coming out soon.
The Lady from the Sea is at Donmar Warehouse until 2 December 2017. Amuka-Bird will also be in Hard Sun, opposite Agyness Deyn, coming soon to BBC One