Joan Iyiola Is Turning Shakespeare And Stereotypes Inside Out & We're Here For It

By Joan Iyiola

Joan Iyiola is a British-Nigerian actress of stage and screen. She is most notably known for 'The Duchess of Malfi', 'Eclipsed' and BBC’s 'New Blood'. She trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School after reading Law at Cambridge University. She is also an alumni of NYT. Joan is an Ambassador for Theatre for a Change as well as the co-founder of The Mono Box.

I am on a train and it’s the crack of dawn. I’m travelling from the land of Shakespeare to London. Journeys like this one are intense. I’m preparing for an audition and need to get through two more scripts before I arrive at Marylebone station. Auditions can be daunting, but they are also full of possibility. As the imagination begins to do its work, the questions tumble out. What piece of art should I make next? How can I present a new narrative from a female perspective? Can I be bothered to explain the validity of my existence again? I clutch my coffee. Tight.

I am currently playing in The Duchess of Malfi at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We’re halfway through the run, and even though John Webster wrote the play in 1612, our modern production presents a blistering example of what it means to be a woman today. The creative team behind the making of our show is almost entirely female, fronted by our powerhouse director, Maria Aberg. Our exploration asks how anyone can survive in a world where masculinity has become toxic. I’m an advocate for producing the classical canon with a contemporary lens, in a way that is necessary and reflective on the world that we live in.

The Duchess herself is an exhilarating force and a rare example of an incredibly well-written central female role. She’s multi-faceted in every way: wonderfully playful in the wooing of her lover, uncomfortably complex in her relationship with her brothers, and fearsome in leadership. Exuding strength and vulnerability, qualities infrequently expressed together without judgment, she represents many women I know. As her brothers seek to destroy her, somehow she gets stronger, and through the hell of it all, her spirit shines.

Michelle Obama recently spoke about the frustrations of women not being allowed to ‘fail up’ in the way that men can. Roles like The Duchess are craved for, but a funny thing happens when they actually come along. It felt like I was shunted into the central space, which was an unusual arena to now 'own'. The fear of failure was palpable.

Then one day our director said ‘hold your ground’. It was a revelatory moment. I suddenly realised that somewhere in my subconscious lies a default setting: exceptional navigator. But that’s what we do, for the co-existence of masculinity and femininity, we accommodate.

With eyes wide open, we may even disrupt an imagined reality of what being British actually looks like today.

However, the Duchess doesn’t. She owns the land that she walks on. "MINE" with every step. So as well as stepping into this role, I had to listen to my own voice in a new position. It occasionally croaked, often guffawed, but sometimes, truly, it soared.

The Duchess has been played by a range of illustrious actresses such as Dame Peggy Ashchroft, Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench… and now a British Nigerian has taken on the role. For some time the industry has referenced casting decisions like this as ‘colour-blind’ casting. To be ‘blind’ is to miss something that is right in front of you, and for actors of colour, it has often meant stepping into a white narrative. With eyes wide open, we may even disrupt an imagined reality of what being British actually looks like today. A well-known journalist recently came to review another show in our season and, with his privileged gaze, questioned the choice of casting a black actor in what he deemed to be a 'white role'. This is England. In 2018. Standing in the wings, feeling the need to justify your place. Again.

The Brits are still afraid and it is often replicated in our culture, making the States take strides ahead of us when it comes to the faces that we see on our screens. Women of colour are still paid shockingly less than their counterparts. The problems are systemic, but time is well and truly up on that. We know our worth.

The next generation of storytellers is watching and listening, and it is up to us to help pave their path and ensure their stories are shared.

For now, the power of my Britishness lies in making great shows for the right audiences. With my company, The Mono Box, I collaborated with The RSC to arrange coach trips from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon, opening up theatre to a young, diverse, and fresh audience, many of whom had never visited this theatre or seen classical work. I am a firm believer that the entertainment industry has an obligation to represent the same kind of diverse population that exists in our world.

Equal Representation for Actresses (ERA) 50:50 revealed that for every two parts there are for men, there’s only one for women. In children’s TV, it’s three to one! What are we doing? If we continue to offer entertainment options that serve only limited communities, audiences may simply opt out. The next generation of storytellers is watching and listening, and it is up to us to help pave their path and ensure their stories are shared.

I’ve landed in London. Home. The sun is shining. Clutching the scripts that breathe life to an activist from Alabama, a self-made businesswoman from Sierra Leone, and a British politician, it’s clear. My job is to keep making work that punches at the form. To make people shake. There is great power in the culture that we choose to celebrate. Letitia Wright as a superhero in Black Panther made me walk a little taller, and watching Tony-Nominated Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child made my inner child dance.

Black women are electric, and the disruption is real. Young girls everywhere are plotting the revolution. This is our Britain, and we are taking our place, centre stage.