An interview with Sophie Okonedo

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We talk to actor Sophie Okonedo about her current West End show, and love of theatre.

Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? runs until the end of this month at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Starring opposite Damian Lewis, Sophie Okonedo OBE says that although she planned to have a break from theatre, her physical instincts and being ‘gripped’ by the play were enough to get her on board.

One might wonder where Sophie Okonedo finds the time for theatre, given that since arriving on the acting scene in 1991 she’s hardly been off our screens. From her early breakthrough role as Tracy in Young Soul Rebels via Dirty Pretty Things and a long list of TV roles leading up to last year’s turn as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown, Okonedo’s acting CV is illustrious.

But London-born and bred Okonedo has turned her talents to the theatre with acclaimed performances in Broadway productions The Crucible and A Raisin in the Sun opposite Denzel Washington - the latter winning her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. In 2011 she appeared in Haunted Child in the West End, where she now returns with Edward Albee’s tragi-comedy The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? until June 24.

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Whilst admitting that “performing eight times a week is frightening” - it’s an approach to performing that puts many actors off - Okonedo nonetheless relishes the experience. “What’s great about doing theatre is the collaborative experience and really getting the chance to rehearse properly,” she says. “You can go deeper into a text, finding new things you might not pick up on the first time.”

Image Credit: Johan Persson

The daughter of a Jewish, Pilates-teaching mother and a Nigerian father who worked for the government, Okonedo was raised in poverty following her father’s departure when she was just five years old. Raised in her mother’s faith - “I feel as proud to be Jewish as I am to be black”, she once said - Okonedo drew a spark from the theatre early on, initially from seeing the musical Annie on the TV. After seeing an ad in Time Out, she joined a writing group in the Royal Court’s youth theatre and went on to appear in the original production of Serious Money, Caryl Churchill’s play set in the London stock market. Sharing the stage with stars of the calibre of Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina ignited that spark for good.

Acceptance into drama school - the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art - sealed the deal. Having now worked for 25 years in the business, Okonedo says she is still learning and relishes the experiences of being “all in it together”. In The Goat, which is billed as “darkly comic and at times disturbing” and which is hailed as its creator’s masterpiece, Okonedo plays Stevie, the wife of an architect, Martin, who is in love with a goat. Drawing on dark sexual themes, the play is very much a tragic tale and Okonedo in particular turns in a highly emotional - and physical - performance. While Martin suffers his own personal tragedy, the ruination of their relationship leaves Stevie utterly heartbroken too.

Image Credit: Tristram Kenton

There’s a good dose of humour in there, though, as Okonedo notes: “When I read the play I was laughing but also upset, and once you’re rehearsing you forget how funny it is. It comes as quite a shock when people laugh so much during the performance. A lot of them aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry - I don’t know if anyone’s actually walked out yet!”

Originally opening on Broadway in 2002, The Goat won that year’s Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and was a runner-up in the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play has every chance of scooping more awards this year - with Okonedo's performance being widely praised.

Okonedo herself may feel compelled to take her planned break from theatre after this gruelling emotional journey. She’s definitely earned one, and looks forward to getting back to her countryside home in Sussex to “do some gardening”. “I just like relaxing in nature,” she smiles, “and I enjoy the solitude.”

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is at the Haymarket Theatre until June 24. Tickets from £10.