• Friday, April 19, 2024

Arts and Culture

Tony Jayawardena who plays Churchill hails inclusion progress in theatre

The actor wants more opportunities for ethnic talent as he stars in National Theatre’s Nye

Tony Jayawardena with the Nye cast in rehearsals

By: Sarwar Alam

PLAYING Winston Churchill in a play at the National Theatre is another step towards inclusivity in the arts, actor Tony Jayawardena told Eastern Eye.

The 45-year-old will be seen playing the iconic former British prime minister in the play, Nye, which is based on the life of Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan – the Welsh politician who fought to create the NHS.

“As a south Asian actor, it had never occurred to me that I might be offered the role of Winston Churchill and play it on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Such a thing happening to me was beyond my imagination,” said Jayawardena.

As soon as they asked me to audition for the role, I thought, ‘I think I can do a brilliant Winston Churchill’. However, considering the world I grew up in and my 20 years of experience in the industry, I never imagined that a person of colour would be cast as Winston Churchill, let alone me.”

He added, “A south Asian actor can play Churchill and a black woman can play the Little Mermaid because representation matters. Anyone moaning about the Little Mermaid, you just have to see the videos of little girls around the world watching the film and going, ‘Oh my god, she looks like me’ to see how important representation can be. I am very proud to be part of a production that may be leading the way in this regard.”

‘Nye’ cast in rehearsals

Jayawardena conceded that there was still a long way to go towards parity, inclusivity and equality, across the board, in theatre.

He spoke of his hope that his playing Churchill was an indication of more to come in terms of equality of opportunity and parts for ethnic minority actors.

“It’s dangerous to frame it as a binary outcome – either we’ve achieved it, or we’ve not,” he said.

“There are many positive aspects to where we currently stand, but there are still numerous challenges, particularly in terms of racial equality, gender equality, and equality for people with disabilities.

“We should never perceive it as an endpoint. That’s the danger we face when we think we’ve solved all issues related to humanity. In reality, humanity is continually evolving, changing, and we must evolve and adapt alongside it.

“It’s an ongoing process that demands continuous effort and attention.”

In Nye, Jayawardena takes on two roles. Alongside portraying Winston Churchill, he also embodies Dr. Dain, the physician responsible for caring for Bevan. When faced with mortality, Bevan’s recollections propel him on a surreal journey spanning his life, from childhood to underground mining, parliamentary conflicts, and encounters with Churchill, in an epic Welsh fantasia.

“The challenges of playing Winston Churchill, especially given his widespread recognition, revolved around capturing his voice, mannerisms, temperament, and demeanour accurately. On the other hand, Dr. Dain, not being based on a real individual, offered more creative freedom, allowing me to shape the character as I saw fit,” explained Jayawardena.

Dain symbolises the many south Asians and other global majority medical professionals who have been part of the NHS since its inception.

“Creating a multicultural, diverse cast that truly reflects the NHS has definitely been a priority for the creators,” Jayawardena noted. He describes the play as a “love letter” to the NHS.

“We aim to highlight the challenges faced in establishing and sustaining the NHS, emphasising its ongoing significance and the work needed to ensure its resilience and prosperity,” he emphasised.

“The NHS is a precious jewel, a unique asset in our country. Its dedicated professionals deserve fair compensation and efficient, top-quality systems to work in,” he stressed.

The NHS was created on July 5, 1948, when doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians, dentists and hospitals came together for the first time as one giant UKwide organisation at the Park hospital in Davyhulme, Manchester, which is now Trafford general hospital.

Michael Sheen as Bevan

Bevan, hailed as the driving force behind the creation of the NHS, is often lauded as the most influential politician in the nation’s history, despite never holding the position of prime minister.

“This is a story about how one man did an extraordinary thing,” said Jayawardena.

“The establishment of the NHS was an immense political challenge, especially in the post-war era when resources were scarce and morale was low. Its creation truly defied the odds and can be considered nothing short of a miracle.

Michael Sheen, renowned for his compelling portrayals of historical figures both on stage and screen, including Brian Clough, Kenneth Williams, David Frost, and Tony Blair, will play Bevan.

“He is one of the best actors in the country,” said Jayawardena.

“He is someone you learn from just by being in the same room. He’s been fantastic to work with and I can’t wait for the world to see him play Aneurin Bevan. It’s a very significant role for him because he’s a proud Welshman, and Bevan is a Welsh hero.

“Michael is deeply knowledgeable about Bevan and he’s genuinely honoured to portray him. He’s eager to share this play with the world and hopes to enlighten those who may not be familiar with the story of the NHS’s formation.”

Nye is at the National Theatre until May 11 and will be broadcast via NT Live on April 23. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk It will also have a limited run at the Wales Millennium Centre from May 18 – June 1, 2024. www.wmc.org.uk

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