BWW Interview: Janie Dee and Moronke Akinola Talk THE NICETIES at Finborough Theatre
Janie Dee and Moronke Akinola can currently be seen in The Niceties at the Finborough Theatre, which centres on the conflict between a university history professor and her student - a conflict that spreads from the academic to the personal.
BroadwayWorld spoke with both actors about Eleanor Burgess's play, and what they want audiences to take away from seeing the show.
What's exciting about performing new material, but what also are the challenges?
Janie: What's exciting is that you don't know any kind of format or character choice. It's a sparkling white, clear canvas.
Moronke: And that's the challenge too: what do you reference? You need to dive into the text to realise what it's screaming out. It's not been done over here, and there's an opportunity there.
Janie: The excitement is to hold it and give it perfectly in a way that will be accepted. I really feel we have this, but I can imagine you can go off-centre because you're not looking at the text exactly. We've only had three weeks to rehearse, which is difficult: it's demandingly intense.
Moronke: If there was ever a show where you need a map for each line, then this is it. You need to be free to react and not be wondering about each line.
What was your initial response to reading the play?
Janie: Firstly, that it was too difficult. I met with the director and then felt a shard of fear. I realised how scary the play was, and then thought how much I wanted to do it.
Moronke: You audition for material as a new graduate with lowered expectations. Then there's excitement when you're offered the work, and then you realise how large and complex the show is. It's a necessary piece.
Janie: With difficult material, you need to turn the ignition on full power and go. We've had recordings of ourselves reading the lines as a way of helping us learn the material and it's been really helpful.
Moronke: I've never worked like this before on a play, but you need to learn it this way. During the first week of rehearsals I was starstruck by Janie: she's very inspiring. When you're in drama school you're told what acting is, but when I watch Janie, it's absolutely clear.
Janie: I feel the same about you and all the company. Everyone here is so informed and I love being an eternal student. What's lovely is to learn from people who are young because they have the fresh ideas and intelligence. That's what the play is about: the failings of my generation and the angry younger generation (to speak in broad terms). I can hear what my children are saying to me through the play. It's an insistent desire to open up to new thoughts and to look at things properly.
People have talked of post-Brexit Britain as being post-expert - how does this apply to The Niceties?
Janie: Several years ago, I did an unusual cabaret for the national critics and I realised through doing that that they're all on our side. They all love theatre and are geeky, as I feel I am, and they are obsessed by it. You feel it can help you. We cannot give in to not having experts.
How do you characterise the intergenerational nature of the work?
Moronke: It's a very open and frank discussion. People from different generations come together to try to discuss what people want to talk about but cannot. So much of it is about race, politics and age. It's all about trying. It also passes the Bechdel test: there's no relationship chatter throughout the whole hour and 45 minutes. It's about trying and discussing.
Janie: It's a potentially wonderful friendship, but it's human. There are conflicts within my character about wanting to ally herself with this student but also wanting to stay true to myself. There's also a desire to not lose respect.
Moronke: There are conflicts within the room and within ourselves.
Janie: I asked the director why my character was speaking, and he said: "Because she thinks she's brilliant." As a parent, the entire play has a resonance, but the professor-student relationship is different.
How does it feel just having two people on stage?
Moronke: It's intimate and exposing. You're accountable to your other actors as always, but it's more intense. We need to marry our characters' ideas together to ensure the message of the piece comes through.
What's changed for you about the play during rehearsals?
Moronke: As we've rehearsed, I've become even more empathetic towards both characters. When you talk about certain issues, it was hard a few weeks ago to play Zoe. The more knowledge you get, the harder it becomes. You need to distinguish yourself from the character.
Which theatre would you like to work at next?
What would you like to see change in the industry?
Janie: I think at the moment it's in a fantastic place. I went to The Stage Debut Awards and I saw so many brilliant, hardworking and inclusive directors, writers and actors. They're looking at everything and are really present. Boundaries are more defined, which isn't a bad thing: they're clearer.
Language is our gift as the human race. I want to continue to speak such brilliantly written work: it elevates both those acting and those listening. It'll leave you thinking and it's intellectually awake. I do wonder if we're keeping audiences stimulated as an industry - the theatre is a lovely place to have conversations you can't usually have. You feel this play's energy and theatre can define you as an individual.
What question does The Niceties pose to you both?
Janie: It's tied to what I said before, but also: who am I, what do I believe in, and what should I do about it?
Moronke: If I could have a tagline for this show, it would be 'Come and have the conversation you didn't know you need to have'.
Janie: The play is set in 2016 just before... just before what? That is the question, and we're still living through it now.
Photograph credit: Ali Wright