BUZZ CULTURE: RAKIE AYOLA IN DAT’S LOVE | INTERVIEW
Billie Ingram-Sofokleous, for Buzz Culture, is bowled over by the dulcet tones of Cardiff actor Rakie Ayola. Just as well, then, that her latest National Theatre Wales role finds her reading a collection of stories set in the old Tiger Bay…
Alt text: Rakie Ayola has short, cropped hair, delicate silver hoops and her right hand against her face; her left hand rests below her knee, across her body. Her eyes are looking straight at the camera. She is wearing an open denim waistcoat and a patterned sleeveless bandeau.
Rakie Ayola will be sending listeners headfirst into a nostalgic journey through a Cardiff of old this month, reading Dat’s Love & Other Stories: a collection of short fiction by the late writer Leonora Brito, recorded live by National Theatre Wales. It’s the Welsh actor’s latest role for the company, following previous performances as Noni in 2019 production On Bear Ridge – alongside Rhys Ifans, and recognised at last year’s Black British Theatre Awards – and another reading role in Matthew Bulgo’s 2020 livestreamed performance of Constellation Street.
Away from the theatre, Ayola has recently featured in ITV drama Grace, based on the book series of the same name by Peter James and screened only a few weeks ago; a lead in dystopian BBC drama Noughts + Crosses, playing Prime Minister Opal Folami, and Jimmy McGovern’s Anthony, another BBC drama, as Anthony’s mother Gee. She’s currently filming the second series of Alex Rider for Prime Video, opposite Vicky McClure and Otto Farrant.
She’s got solid form as a narrator, too, including Radio 4’s A Book At Bedtime. Listening to her speak, the melodic, inflective and expressive lilt of Ayola’s voice is apparent: not only does reading stories aloud feel a bit of a dream job, as we discuss, she was made for storytelling. So what drew Ayola to Brito’s stories, largely drawing on and depicting the Black community of Cardiff’s Butetown district?
“There’s so much work out there that just goes untouched, under the radar, and it’s so incredibly rich. I hope that creatives rediscover these narratives and adapt them all over the place.” In the case of the Dat’s Love collection, Ayola – who grew up in Ely – found this unusually resonant: “I felt as if I’d peered into my childhood home’s window and written it down.”
From a theatrical perspective, it supplies rich pickings for the creative director too. When Ayola was first approached for the role, she was handed the book to enjoy, and from the first read could spot the potential for adaptation of characters and how it might translate to the stage. There are parallels, she suggests, with Alan Bennett in Brito’s work, but this extraordinary woman had found a voice hidden in plain sight.
Lorne Campbell, NTW’s artistic director as of last spring, floated the idea of adapting Dat’s Love amidst a voracious personal reading programme of Welsh literature. He talked to Ayola about the collection of stories, with a view to having her read them. First published in 1996 and available via Parthian, Brito touches on universal themes with an astute understanding of loneliness, deprivation and vulnerability – explored through her characters, she as the narrator. Does Ayola have a favourite story from the book?
“Stripe By Stripe is my absolute favourite, and In Very Pleasant Surroundings a second favourite, but there were none I didn’t enjoy. Out of the nine stories we chose, there were some we didn’t record, because she’d gone off on a tangent so they weren’t about Cardiff.”
Dat’s Love was recorded live, and via livestream, in February of this year after lockdown rules meant the original plan to gather an audience in the Red Lion pub was off the menu, and has been set to original music by Imran Khan with illustrations by Kyle Legall (another Butetown native, interviewed by Buzz last year). Ayola recalls the recording as a relaxed one, with the immersive style of theatre preserved despite the odds. The crucial element, she says, “was being able to hear and see the audience – it was close to a live audience. We could all see each other – and there was a virtual bar! There were some people who were invited who lived on the docks, some people from the creative communities and writers, and they really got it.”
Now around three decades into her professional acting career, eyeballed by millions in her Doctor Who, EastEnders and Harry Potter roles among others, does the Rakie Ayola of 2021 have any advice for her younger self?
“Calm down! None of those people you met were in your future. And, if you can’t say yes with an open heart, you’ll wish you’d said no thanks. It’s OK to say no thank you. If I’d said it a little more, there would be a lot less dust… but they led me here.”
Dat’s Love & Other Stories will be shown via the AM platform from Thurs 15 Apr until Fri 15 Oct. Info: here.
words BILLIE INGRAM-SOFOKLEOUS photos RAZIA NAQVI-JUKES
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