Interview with Arinzé Kene

Arinzé Kene is a critically acclaimed actor and playwright, earning the Screen International UK Star of Tomorrow and Most Promising Playwright title at the Off West End Theatre Awards for his play Estate Walls. His most recent plays include good dog, which tiata fahodzi theatre company toured throughout the UK in 2017, God’s Property, a co-production with Talawa, which ran at Soho Theatre in 2013, and Little Baby Jesus, directed by Che Walker at the Oval House Theatre. His current play Misty transfers to London’s Trafalgar Studios for six weeks only from 8 September 2018, following its sold-out run at the Bush Theatre earlier this year. Through a blend of theatre, gig and performance poetry, Kene delivers an epic, heartfelt and playful exploration of creative freedom, set against a pulsating vision of modern London. As if this wasn’t enough, he will also be starring in the film musical Been So Long with Michaela Coel, premiering on Netflix in the autumn, and in the BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel The Long Song, expected to premiere in 2019. Heather Marks speaks to this rising star about his upcoming projects, the place of technology and poetry in British theatre, and his excitement to star in a period drama.  

How is the Misty transfer going? Is there anything about its second run that you’re hoping for?

I’m looking forward to it and more people getting the chance to see it. The show won’t have changed, but we’re playing to a much bigger house now. Trafalgar Studios is more than double the size of Bush [Theatre] which will be fun. I still want to keep the same energy that we brought to the Bush. Since we announced it, a lot of people are really happy about the transfer. My main thing is getting the story out there.

When is Been So Long coming to Netflix and what was it like working on the project?

It comes to Netflix in October [2018]. It was so much fun shooting. I did it last year with Michaela Coel. It’s a funny one because I’m performing with a lot of my friends: I’m mates with Michaela, Joe Dempsie, Ronke Adekoluejo and George Mackay; Jo Martin who plays my mum is a friend of mine. The whole job was a dream. I’ve seen it and it’s a lot of fun.

What was it like working on the film as opposed to the stage production?

I’m really glad I got to revisit the character because when I played Raymond in 2009 I was 21 and that was a very big leap for me to play a 30 year old. I remember struggling a lot with the romance because I’d never been in love before. I was being pushed quite a lot in rehearsals whenever I had to be vulnerable and to wear my heart on my sleeve; to be exposed. To play that role again, nine years later, that was awesome. I had gained all these experiences in my twenties and I was able to revisit the character and throw myself at it. It’s good to have another shot. It was lots of fun onstage – I think we should do a throwback performance.

You’re also in The Long Song, a BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s fifth novel set in the 19th century at the end of slavery, which is very exciting. The BBC doesn’t do many period dramas that aren’t adaptations of white canonical authors, so what drew you to the project?

Like yourself, I’m a fan of Andrea Levy. I saw Small Island [Levy’s fourth novel which was adapted by the BBC in 2006] and I thought it was brilliant. I remember being a fresh-ish actor and thinking it would be amazing to be in that kind of work. Now I have the opportunity. The story is amazing. It’s a refreshing take on slavery and the experiences on the plantation. July is an incredible character. Mahalia Belo is a really talented as a director and I think it’s going to look beautiful. The Long Song is going to break hearts as well because the story can get quite tragic, but there’s a certain mischief and joy about July’s ways.

I don’t do period dramas very often, certainly not for screen anyway, so this was a great chance to sink my teeth into something like that. Quite a few of us in the cast haven’t done period and I’m interested to see what people say when this drops. People are going to ask: Why can’t we tell more stories about black people in history?

As an actor and a writer, are there things you wish British theatre did or didn’t?

I think we make the best theatre in the world. That doesn’t mean that we can’t improve in ways that include other people in storymaking and also being braver to tell more stories and to embrace technology; to embrace the streets. Take the West End. You can sit on Dean Street and the colours you see, the people, the language, the smells and the different music you hear is incredible. It’s a cacophony of all these different cultures and influences that make up London and then, sometimes, you go into a theatre and it’s devoid of colour. I don’t love that about British theatre.

There doesn’t appear to be a lot of theatremakers regularly using technology on the British stage.

We’re massively behind. I haven’t been to Edinburgh for a few years, but I hear we’re using it a bit more there. It feels like there is an aversion to embracing technology in art. Technology is not going to make the writer or the director obsolete. It’s something that’s happening in the world. I love it when we incorporate the now into theatre; one of my new ideas is inspired by something historical, but I’m discussing it as if it’s happening today.

Misty features performance poetry and the critics have responded like Marmite; they either like it or they don’t. It seems like they’re taking a while to adapt to this mode of theatre.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to write something that feels like spoken word at times and performance art at others. It’s a funny one because I feel that we’re changing; audiences are changing. They’re becoming more open to experimental work. Misty isn’t that experimental but look at This is America by Childish Gambino. If that dropped seven years ago, I don’t think it would have been as effective or gone viral. I think we were ready for This is America and we are ready for things that push the boat out and challenge us a bit more. Misty does that, it challenges you, it makes you think and it makes you get involved.

What’s next for you?

Been So Long is coming out in October and I also have a series I shot earlier in the year called Informer. It’s a BBC and Amazon series dropping in Autumn. I’m currently shooting something called How to Build a Girl, which is a Caitlin Moran adaptation. There’s also a film coming out next year. There’s The Long Song and also Flack, a comedy series in which I play a character Sam, Anna Paquin’s boyfriend.

Misty reopens at Trafalgar Studios on 8 September 2018. Tickets can be booked here.