Women and Shakespeare

S4: E5: Lolita Chakrabarti on Red Velvet and Hamnet

January 23, 2024 Varsha Panjwani/ Lolita Chakrabarti Season 4 Episode 5
S4: E5: Lolita Chakrabarti on Red Velvet and Hamnet
Women and Shakespeare
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Women and Shakespeare
S4: E5: Lolita Chakrabarti on Red Velvet and Hamnet
Jan 23, 2024 Season 4 Episode 5
Varsha Panjwani/ Lolita Chakrabarti

In this episode, playwright and actress, Lolita Chakrabarti, talks about her plays, Red Velvet and Hamnet.

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Lolita Chakrabarti
Researchers: Marie Tagbo & Sophie Massey
Producers: Audrey Kim Chung & Niraj Nair 
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Chakrabarti, Lolita in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2024). Lolita Chakrabarti on Red Velvet and Hamnet [Podcast], Series 4, Ep. 5. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, playwright and actress, Lolita Chakrabarti, talks about her plays, Red Velvet and Hamnet.

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Lolita Chakrabarti
Researchers: Marie Tagbo & Sophie Massey
Producers: Audrey Kim Chung & Niraj Nair 
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Chakrabarti, Lolita in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2024). Lolita Chakrabarti on Red Velvet and Hamnet [Podcast], Series 4, Ep. 5. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Varsha: [00:00:00] Hello dear listeners, happy 2024! Welcome to the first episode ‘Women & Shakespeare’ in the new year. As I look back at the past year, I am thinking about the huge impact of the past, of histories. The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 made my grandparents refugees. This rupture shaped their future generations because I feel the resonance of this historical incident in my life as a first-generation migrant. Understanding this history from many different perspectives helps me to trace the contours of my own journey, my biases and strengths, my ability to adapt in a different country and my desire to experience what it is to be connected to a land that one calls home. In Hindi, the word for yesterday is ‘kal’ and the word for tomorrow is also ‘kal’. As we stand in the present between kal and kal, the language invites us to register the echo between the past and future and insists that we look at the past to be able to shape the future.  

 This is why plays that deal with overlooked histories, especially with an eye to the repercussions of it in the present moment, intrigue me and move me greatly. This is why seeing Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Red Velvet, was such a revelation. Her play is about Ira Aldridge – a Black American actor who, in the 19th century, acted in numerous Shakespeare productions and changed opinions about what a Shakespeare actor looks like. Chakrabarti uses the play to comment on prejudice in the theatre then and now. No wonder that it earned her the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright 2012; The Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright 2013; an Olivier Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre 2012. Red Velvet is now on the Drama syllabus for schools and Universities.

When I heard that Lolita was adapting Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, I knew that she would show us Shakespeare’s life from a different viewpoint – maybe a necessary viewpoint. I knew I had to talk to her. 

Lolita Chakrabarti has been awarded an OBE (The Order of the British Empire which recognizes outstanding contributions to the arts). She is both a playwright and actress and has won numerous accolades for both. She has many credits to her name, including the multiple award-winning adaptation of Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s novel, for the theatre. However, because we couldn’t just keep her forever, our conversation is mostly about her Shakespeare-related work. To my utter delight, Lolita agreed to come to my classroom where we recorded this podcast! 

Varsha: Lolita, I haven't told this story in public before, but I have to tell you this. So, when your play Red Velvet was out, before I could get organized enough, it sold out very, very fast and I was dying to see it.

Varsha: At this point, I was also online dating, [00:04:00] and a guy asked me if I want to go on a date, and I looked at his profile, did not seem interesting. So I was just about to say no when he said that he has a spare ticket for Red Velvet.

Varsha: At which point, I pretended to be extremely interested, just so I could go and see that play. The play was wonderful.  

Lolita: I’m so chuffed that I was part of a date. How exciting. 

Varsha: Well, your play was the most exciting part of that date. So you can imagine my excitement to be hosting you on Women and Shakespeare. You're so, so welcome. 

Lolita: Oh, thank you. Really nice to be here.

Varsha: I'll begin like I always do by asking when did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Lolita: I remember it really vividly. I grew up in Birmingham, which is in the Midlands in England, and about 50 minutes up the road is Stratford upon Avon.

Lolita: [00:05:00] Which to me, as a child, had been a boring place that we went for a day out. You know, we sat in the park and looked at the theatre and went, ‘Okay, this is really dull’. And then when I was at school, I was studying Richard III when I was 15, and we were taken to Stratford to see it, and it was sold out.

Lolita: It was a production with Antony Sher, and it must have been 1984, which makes me sound ancient, which I am, but anyway, and oh, it was extraordinary. We didn't have seats, so we paid, I don't know, three pounds or something to stand at the back. And I remember there were trumpets and then he came on in this sort of leather clad outfit with these crutches. And it was amazing. Absolutely blew my socks off. 

Varsha: Oh wow. What a play to begin with – Richard III – so that is awesome. And you have begun with a history play and now you have written two plays about the history of Shakespeare and Shakespeare [00:06:00] performance. Hamnet and Red Velvet.

Varsha: So Hamnet is based on Maggie O'Farrell's novel about the personal and creative life of Shakespeare and is set in the 16th and 17th century, whereas Red Velvet is about the Black American actor Ira Aldridge, who performed Shakespeare roles in Britain in the 19th century.

Varsha: So before we discuss each of these plays we wanted to know how you balance between being historically accurate and dramatically compelling. 

Lolita: It's very different for both of these productions. So, Red Velvet was a labour of love, a complete labour of love. So I found Ira Aldridge in 1998.

Lolita: So this was just about pre internet, so there wasn't that access. And I found out about him from a reading somebody did. And they came out and said, ‘Oh, have you heard about this guy Ira Aldridge?’. And I hadn't. And that was enough to sort of pique my interest. So I started to try and [00:07:00] find him through books, libraries, faxing libraries in America and things like that.

Lolita: And as I found out about him – it's just an extraordinary story, and the facts are so much more interesting than anything I could make up. So it took me 15 years from that first finding of Ira Aldridge to the first time the play was on in 2012. So, I was sort of immersed in all of his history and it's so brilliant and so unknown.

Lolita: I know now we look at history through a much more, well, we're starting to look at history through a different lens. We didn't then. So Red Velvet is actually my interpretation of the facts, but if you look at the facts, the names and the people and the dates and everything as far as I know now are right, are correct. And then I have imagined who those people were in that time and made up some of the characters.

Lolita: But Hamnet is different because there's much less known about Shakespeare and Anne [00:08:00] Hathaway and the children and his parents. There are scant bits of public records and things like that.

Lolita: So there's much more space to make up a story. But I was assisted in that by Maggie O'Farrell, of course, the novelist, who made those connections herself. I mean, I did a lot of research as well, but sometimes I think, gosh, is that her imagination? Is that my imagination? Or is it true?

Lolita: So I'm not quite sure which way round it goes, but I think that there are less facts about Shakespeare. And as you'll know, they're just open to endless interpretation. 

Varsha: And you're talking about filling the gaps in the historical records, right? Because we have facts but we don't have emotional nuances, right?

Varsha: Things that people would do in the moment or react or maybe tics that they would have. So what are some of the ethical dilemmas that you face while writing about real historical people? Because if it's a fictional character, you have more leeway to [00:09:00] fill in the emotions and gaps and all of these things. But was it different for historical people?

Lolita: It's tricky. So for Ira I didn't want to make anyone a baddie. And yet Charles Keane, who is Edmund Keane's son in the play, he didn't play opposite Ira in Belfast. So whatever that reason is, I put that out that he didn't know that Ira was Black, because that was part of the device that I needed in the play, to reveal that, oh my gosh, Ira Aldridge is Black, who knew? I don't know if he was a bad guy.

Lolita: I've no idea. I think he was quite nice to Ira Aldridge, actually. But I guess you twist it, don't you? You have to twist it in order to make the story say something that is relevant to now. 

Lolita: So difficult, isn't it? Because you're reinventing them, really. And who could ever say who any of us are? There's always going to be different facets. I mean, I love all my characters. And I am all my characters.

Lolita: So when somebody asks me about Red [00:10:00] Velvet, who are you in Red Velvet? I'm everybody. I'm the racist attitude of Charles Keane, as well as the sort of oppressed Halina, the journalist. I'm all of them. So, yeah. There is a pressure, but I can't be stopped in telling the story in order to kowtow to that kind of pressure because otherwise you wouldn't tell anything, really.

Varsha: And I think that that's the playwright's job to fill these kind of archival gaps in, to make these compelling points. Did anyone come to you and say, ‘Well, Charles Keane was not so bad, was not a racist?’ Did you have some backlash?

Lolita: No, because nobody knows, right? Nobody knows. And I think prejudice was just part of life. Kind of is still, but we're a bit more aware of it now, so we talk about it more openly, and we're more holding each other to account. But I think in the 19th century, it was just how it was: you just didn't like other people. So I think probably they all were.

Lolita: I'm sure Ira was in many ways, [00:11:00] you know. I try to take the natural tendencies of us now and reflect it through the historical story, so that we can engage with it. 

Varsha: Of course. And we've had lot of discussions in this seminar about how even if we are writing history, we're also writing about the present moment simultaneously because we are in the now looking at those facts, right?

Varsha: And you've said a little bit about what compelled you to write about Ira Aldridge. But tell us a little bit more: why Ira Aldridge, and what was your goal in writing that play? 

Lolita: So I'm an actor by trade. That's what I do. And at that time I'd done ‘O’ level Drama, ‘A’ level Drama. I'd trained at RADA. So I'd been immersed in theatre.

Lolita: And I'd been working for about ten years as an actor. So I'd been in theatre and worked around Britain. And I'd never heard of Ira Aldridge. And when I had [00:12:00] studied British theatre history – or any theatre history – there was very, well, not ‘rarely’, there was nobody. There was there was Garrick, there was Keane, there was Kemble, there was Terry, you know, there were all these great, illustrious people and there was nobody of colour.

Lolita: And even when I look at my own history – so I began in 1990, which isn't that long ago – there weren't, there wasn't anyone really who was lauded. You know, there was Sidney Poitier, so he's one of my heroes. But, how related is he to me in terms of being a British actor and being here? Not. So, when I found Ira, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’. There was somebody.

Lolita: And so as I followed the trail, I realized that he'd been written out of history, really. There'd been a book written by Theophile Gautier, who had travelled Russia. A Frenchman who'd travelled Russia, and he'd made I think three volumes of a book of his travels in theatre and through Russia.

Lolita: And there was a whole chapter on him watching Ira Aldridge. He'd watched Ira Aldridge [00:13:00] play and there was a whole chapter about that. And when Gautier's books were translated into English for, I think it was an American audience, I'm not sure in the early 20th century, I think – it was all translated, but that chapter wasn't. That was left out.

Lolita: So he was eradicated from my history and that made me think, why? So as I followed it, and I found more and more, I mean it's extraordinary, this man's story is extraordinary. He met Hans Christian Andersen, he met the Tolstoys, he travelled Russia, he was knighted, he was awarded, he sold out the Bolshoi Theatre several times over.

Lolita: And when he turned up in Hungary, he was like a rock star. There were people at the train station there to greet him. He took 16 curtain – curtain calls were quite a new thing, so you didn't – I don't know how they ended a show, but you didn't clap and bow, apparently. And it just started at this time.

Lolita: And he took 16 curtain calls, because he was constantly called back. And he became [00:14:00] known in court across Europe. Royalty courted him. And I just thought, why didn't I know? Because that would have – it doesn't make any sense, right? In the way that Sidney Poitier changes my perception of myself as an actor, Ira Aldridge completely changed it.

Lolita: Because I thought, if I knew that you were on the gallery wall alongside these other people, my journey would have been different. So it was a kind of personal – I don't know what it was. I felt his hand on my shoulder going, come on, let's go, bring me out. 

Varsha: That is so, so important, for actors of colour, for scholars of colour to see that there have been models out there. People have carved this territory, and we own Shakespeare too, so – and also it's astonishing, given his career, that, you know, we shouldn't have heard about him until your play did that.

Lolita: Yes, well, his story was written in Russian newspapers, Polish newspapers, French, English. He [00:15:00] was commented on in America, I think.

Lolita: He was everywhere, but nobody was interested enough to collate his story until this 1950s biography by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, who were these I don't know, this one academic and one director went, ‘Who is this guy?’ And they put this book together. Yeah, so it's until people want, until they see the value of your story, nobody tells it. But he was there.

Lolita: I'm so glad that I kept going. It's been a long old journey with Ira. And he actually lived ten minutes from where I live. And I found this out as I was sort of following the trail. And he had a house on Hamlet Road, can you believe it? In Crystal Palace. And there's now a blue plaque on this house.

Lolita: And I was like, ‘Wow! My daughter used to go to flute classes just up Hamlet Road’. And I'd pass it and I'd go, ‘Hey Ira!’.  You know, because I thought, it’s not far. It's history, right? But we're all walking in each other's footsteps, really. It's not that far away. 

Varsha: It was meant to be. Yes. [00:16:00] Fantastic. One of the things that I found really interesting in Red Velvet is that the actors read out reviews of Ira Aldridge's performance as Othello within the play itself.

Varsha: And based on your experience of acting for the theatre, are there any resonances between the way that British reviewers treated Ira Aldridge then, and the way in which British reviewers treat performers of colour or stories from racially diverse perspectives today?

Lolita: Always. There's always resonances.  I mean, I did choose the worst reviews, I really did, for dramatic effect. And I chose the worst bits of the reviews. I mean, there were awful ones. There were more. But I did choose the worst ones. There's always resonances. Yeah. Always. I think it gets, it becomes less now. It's more gauche and sort of awkward now.

Lolita: People say stupid things about people they don't [00:17:00] understand in reviews. And it seems now to say more about the reviewer. Whereas in my day, when I was younger, we all thought, ‘Oh, the reviewers know what they're talking about, so we listen to the reviewers’. Whereas now, you read a review and you think, oh, that person's just got an agenda with disabled people, or that, you know, that person just doesn't get women and you judge them.

Lolita: So it's I don't know if it's an even playing field now, but it's more questioning. But, oh my gosh, yes. I mean, I've really, over the years I can't remember any specifically, but there's always ignorance and prejudice and people's own bias that is in a review when they see a culturally specific piece.

Lolita: I mean, what was interesting about Red Velvet and the reviews, it was such a struggle to get it on. And when we did get it on, it went really, really well. But some of the reviewers were quite po-faced. I don't know if you know that phrase? But quite kind of like, ‘Oh yes, it's very good. But you know, this bit didn't work, that bit didn't work.’

Lolita: And I was really upset. And a friend of mine, an actor of colour said to me, ‘But you're criticising them [00:18:00] actually, in the play’. And I – it hadn't occurred to me, because I laugh at it, I laugh at that stiff upper lip British thing, because it's ridiculous really. But I hadn't realised, yes, I was laughing at them and they didn't like it very much. 

Varsha: No, of course they didn't. But also did not want to appear too biased, so – 

Lolita: No, no, they had to go be very open and like, ‘Yes, yes, it's very good, yes’. 

Varsha: So many of the things that you're saying Donna Kroll, who was also on this podcast was saying as well, that it's between prejudice and now everything that I do is suddenly marvellous because they're not even engaging with the performance. It's just, they do not want to appear racist. It's a sort of plastering over, as it were.

Lolita: It's, it's, yeah, everything, it's all inclusive without true understanding sometimes, yeah. But some of the reviews are brilliant and really get in there and try and explore the different issues that are being brought up.

Lolita: Some of them are [00:19:00] really great. 

Varsha: Yeah, yeah. Thank God for that. Red Velvet confronts how race matters in terms of casting. But it also very much underscores the challenges of women in the theatre. And could you elaborate on these overlapping oppressions of race and of gender as portrayed in Red Velvet and also how that mirrors contemporary theatre dynamics?

Lolita: I was looking at prejudice in as many forms as I could. So it is race and gender, but it's also economics. There's a little bit of sexuality if you find it – there's a gay character in there that it's not really talked about, but he's there – and prejudice against him.

Lolita: I've been acting since 1990, so I've been doing it for 33 years. And it's, sometimes I talk about experiences I had not so early in my career, you know, 10 years ago, and they sound Victorian.

Lolita: You know, to my kids, who are 19 and 22, it just sounds Victorian. You just go, ‘Oh my God, did you have to do [00:20:00] that?’ I mean, the amount of roles there were for women was – the amount of talent in the female acting community is huge, and there's loads of us all competing for these two roles in every Shakespeare play.

Lolita: You know, so there's this explosion now of, ‘Oh, let's reinvent, let's reframe, let's throw the canon up and see what lands’. And it's really exciting, because it, (a) allows different interpretations, but it also doesn't limit you into how other people categorize you. ‘Oh, you're a girl, so you can just play that role’.

Lolita: No, I'm an actor, so I can play all of them. So I was looking at all of those things. You know, the limitations that society places on different groups of people in order to make theatre, and yet theatre is meant to push the boundary and push society. So it was working on all those levels of how stuck we are, and how we need to move forward.

Varsha: Especially in the theatre, as you're saying, we associate it with progressiveness. [00:21:00] And yet there are these prejudices and pockets. 

Lolita: Rules. Yeah. 

Varsha: Yeah. And the fact that you said that often minorities are made to compete against each other so that all the meaty roles are taken. But then there are these two roles and poor minorities are fighting for those two roles. 

Lolita: Yeah. I made, I produced a short film and the short film was directed by a Black person and there were Black and White members of cast in the film. And we got selected for a short film festival and they said, ‘Oh, would you come and talk in the short film festival with some other filmmakers?’

Lolita: We said, yeah. So they said, ‘Well, we're going to put you in the Black and Asian filmmakers group’. And I sort of went, ‘Oh, okay, right’. So then, there they were, eight or nine Black or Asian filmmakers with their films that were all different mixes and all different kinds of stories. And the conversation got completely reduced because all the audience asked about was them being Black and [00:22:00] Asian filmmakers.

Lolita: And it was a complete example to me of how I never think of, I mean, I am Asian. I'm very, very proud to be it and all of those things, but I don't walk around going, oh, ‘I'm South Asian. Hello’, you know, I'm a person. And so if you reduce the conversation to one aspect it limits all of us.  

Varsha: I agree. I get very irritated as well when people will say to me, ‘What is it about being a Shakespeare scholar of colour?’. And I just want to say, ‘Well, ask me about Shakespeare’. I do know about Shakespeare, you know, not only as a woman of colour, as a Shakespeare expert as well.

Lolita: Because that's about what they're seeing rather than what you're offering. Although, my advisor for Hamnet is Professor Farah Karim-Cooper. 

Varsha: Oh, she's also on the podcast! 

Lolita: And she's brilliant because, (a) she's a Shakespearean specialist, as I'm sure you are, but she's also got that other cultural perspective of being American, being a woman, and being of Pakistani heritage, which just brings a whole [00:23:00] other little tilt that was really helpful.

Varsha: And I'm very glad to have her in the field because you were talking about the importance of role models. It's nice to see that. Indeed. So I want to ask you a technical question about playwriting. And Red Velvet skips back and forth through different historical timelines. But you decided to write Hamlet in chronological order, even though the novel that it is based on skips back and forth in time.

Varsha: So, as a playwright, how are your choices based on the effects you want to achieve in the theatre? So, in other words, if there is an aspiring playwright, how should they decide whether a chronological way of storytelling is best for their subject matter, or a back-and-forth one?

Lolita: So with Red Velvet, my angle of the story was how does that incident in London [00:24:00] affect a person's career. And so I thought, let me go from Ira on the last day of his life and he can flash back to what brought him there. So that was important that we saw those two places. But Hamnet's interesting, because the book is called Hamnet. So everyone thinks, OK, this is about Hamnet. It's not really.

Lolita: It's about Shakespeare's wife, Anne/Agnes Hathaway. When I read it, I thought, well, if I stay in the two time zones of going back and forth, it would definitely focus the story on Hamnet.

Lolita: And then Agnes would be part of it. But for me, Agnes is the story. And so I had to make that choice. And so I needed to follow Agnes and how she and Shakespeare made Hamnet and then how he then made Hamlet. It just made sense to me to follow it. So the story dictates how you tell it. 

Varsha: I love that idea of with Ira Aldridge tracing how one incident can really have a ripple effect on your career. [00:25:00] So I see what you're saying that if you want to trace those ripple effects, you have to have a back-and-forth historical timeline. In a way, it's a moment of comprehension of what leads him there. 

Lolita: Yes, absolutely, because if you just stayed with Ira when he's 27 throughout, it'd be much more immediate. You'd experience what he experiences with him, but you'd have none of, where did that land?

Lolita: And what I really want – because I was talking about myself through the play really – is what do these biases, restrictions, limitations, what does it do to somebody as they travel? And so that's why I wanted to look at the two timelines.

Varsha: And I also agree with you about the chronological order in Hamnet. It very much, even while we were seeing it in the theatre, has Agnes Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife becomes the protagonist of that story. What attracted you to her [00:26:00] character? 

Lolita: Oh, she's just great, isn't she? It was really pleasing when actors came in to audition. A lot of the women who came in to audition just went, ‘God, this is fantastic. This is a woman who's just got everything. She's fiery, she's vulnerable, she's strong, she's erratic. She's just got everything’. And it's nice to write a character like that, that's female, who's free. Yeah.

Varsha: Yeah, especially for Shakespeare's wife, right? Because gosh, talk about being overshadowed. 

Lolita: Yes, but also translated by historians who are, I'm assuming, White men, who go, ‘Oh, well, she's not important. He's the important one. And of course, she couldn't read, so she's just in the background. She got left in Stratford with the children’.

Lolita: That's what they all did to their wives, right? ‘So let's focus on Shakespeare and how amazing he is’. But, of course, he's not amazing without all the people around him. And he went back to Stratford, and he lived there and died there at the end, and he would put all his money into Stratford. There's no way the man just [00:27:00] left her and went. No way. 

Varsha: No. I mean, it takes so much to support a genius, quote unquote, right? Like, people need all of the support that they can get, all the encouragement they can get all the bouncing off ideas, maybe, that they can get to become what they become and achieve, right?

Lolita: Absolutely right. Yeah. I don't think it's easy to live with a genius at all. And then to nurture it.

Varsha: Did you set out to write Agnes Hathaway in Hamnet as a woman of colour? And if so, what was the reasoning behind your decision, or was that something that came in while casting?

Lolita: No, she was very conscious because it's in the story. So I researched a project that didn't get made.

Lolita: It was a TV series set in 1619. So it's after Hamnet and it was 1619, it was James I and it was the moment that slavery started in Britain.[00:28:00] It was already happening with Portugal and Spain, but it started in Britain. I was just amazed.

Lolita: I mean, the world is different now, right? Because we're looking beyond what we've been told. But then I wasn't when I was doing this research. And so my mind was blown that there was obviously the silk trail, the spice trail. There was coffee and chocolate coming from Brazil. You know, the sort of international nature of the world.

Lolita: And then slavery was starting. It was a horrible thing, but still, it was international. And there was so much trade. And I read stuff about, I can't remember if it was the Ivory Coast or Ghana, I can't remember. But there was trade being done between an African king in one of those places and Britain.

Lolita: And it wasn't that Britain was going and pillaging, it was a deal. The Africans were, had gold and they were superior actually, so the Britons were going to trade with them respectfully and that surprised me. So I thought the world was a very [00:29:00] different place and it's not the world that has been represented to us now.

Lolita: So when I was writing Hamnet, which is, like 35 years before this, in Maggie's book, Agnes Hathaway's mother came out of the forest, was a person who had second sight, healing abilities sort of natural faith healing stuff and it just corresponded to me with either an Asian or an African culture.

Lolita: And so I thought, ‘Ah!’ and that freedom, somebody who's free in herself. So it made sense to me that Agnes mother would have been, I think Black heritage, I'm not sure from where. Came out of the forest, who knows how. Met the Stratford man, her dad, who they married and then they had the children. So they're mixed heritage.

Lolita: So it's a very conscious decision. Because I just think that there were people, when I've done research, there were all kinds of people all over the country. And the people that Britain was [00:30:00] racist against then were the Europeans. So they hated the Swedes and the Dutch and, you know, all that. I thought, ‘Ah!’, so they didn't necessarily log that somebody was Black or Indian. They just went, ‘Oh, you know, that person is a seamstress’. So I thought it wasn't such a big deal then. 

Varsha: But also, there are seeds of difference, right? They are not kind of – if they are not prejudiced, they are somehow seeing the difference all the time, aren't they? That, ‘Oh, she is - she's a bit odd. Yes, she's a bit weird.’ So there's that too. 

Lolita: Yes, there is that. But then if Agnes had been German, they would've been horrible to her. Do you know what I mean? So it's interesting, right? How it, it changes. Racism, prejudice changes.

Lolita: So, yeah, she's different. But is it because she's a witch? Is it because she's sort of making potions and things like that, or is it because she's mixed heritage? I don't know. 

Varsha: Yeah, well, what is it that is so wonderful and freeing and different about her that attracts [00:31:00] Shakespeare as well.

Lolita: The reason I also made her mixed heritage is there's one portrait of Anne Hathaway, isn't there? And it was done 60 or 70 years after her death. So who knew what she looked like? And this picture is very generic. You know, she's got this sort of plaited hair and it's a very generic picture. I thought it could easily be Madeleine, who's playing Agnes.

Lolita: Could easily, she could easily have looked like that. But you know, like with Ira, we – is it whitewash? We remove the things we don't want to see. She could have looked like that. 

Varsha: No, I'm glad to at least reimagine differently and see, well how about this? Great. So my student, Monimar Mancillas, she was interested in the way that your acting and your playwriting intersect. Now, I was specifically intrigued by the fact that you played Gertrude, which is Hamlet's mother in a production of Hamlet. What was your take on Gertrude? I'm obsessed with Gertrude. [00:32:00] 

Lolita: Ah, what a brilliant part. Such a brilliant part. Because she doesn't say that much, does she? But she's there. Wow, is she there. I thought she was making the best of a bad job.

Lolita: A disempowered woman whose husband falls dead in a horrible way and gets an out through her brother-in-law and so does the unthinkable and makes it manageable by just denial. So I thought she was in total denial. And was going, ‘It's all fine, it's great, come on Hamlet, come on, cheer up, it's fine. It’s gonna be okay, yeah, let's just love each other and it's fine’.

Lolita: And then of course it all starts to fall apart, and then at the end I think his dedication to her was angry, but was still there. And so at the end when she dies, she gives him the last, the last gift is don't have the drink, the drink.

Lolita: So I think it's, it's a beautiful part, actually. I [00:33:00] really enjoyed playing her.

Varsha: I really love Gertrude. 

Lolita: Oh, good!

Varsha: So a final question as we wrap up. So we were talking about role models, right? Who might be role models for you? 

Lolita: I have a really random bag of people who are my role models. And they're not necessarily gender appropriate or race appropriate for me. So my big role models have been Sidney Poitier, Muhammad Ali, who has nothing to do with theatre, but is just a breaker of barriers and a person who comes out of his box in extraordinary ways.

Lolita: You know, sports people, when I think of the Williams sisters, and I think what they've achieved, and they never really get the applause, do they? I mean, I know they do, but they don't get the proper applause for what they've achieved. I think people like that who just, despite everything, push through.

Lolita: In acting, there are so many actors who I admire, and it's not race or [00:34:00] gender specific. If the performance moves me and touches me, then I'm sold really because then you take an essence of that and you put it into your bag of tricks and hope. So there are so many people. 

Lolita: I mean, I've loved Glenda Jackson and my classmate, I trained with Sophie Okonedo. She's wonderful. She does fabulous work. God, there are so many people. People who break ground and barriers are many, aren't they? And they're in very different areas of life, and I'll take a little bit of all of them if I can.

Varsha: That's a fantastic thing to remember as well. No matter what obstacles we are facing, to look up to these people who have laid the groundwork as well for us to look at them and see, well, do you know? They must have found it hard, but they kept going.

Lolita: Yeah, extraordinary circumstances make extraordinary people sometimes. Yeah. 

Varsha: On that fantastic note, I am so, so [00:35:00] thankful. I've enjoyed this conversation a lot. Thank you. 

Lolita: Thank you.

Varsha: And if we could give Lolita a round of applause.

Varsha: That was Lolita Chakrabarti talking about Red Velvet, Hamnet, Ira Aldridge, and Agnes Hathaway, and the craft of looking at histories in the theatre. In the next episode, we wrap up the series with Professor Tiffany Stern whose work I have looked up to since I was a doctoral student and whom I was thrilled to invite into my classroom. So, dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu, but remember to tune in to Women and Shakespeare, streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with a full transcript, head over to the website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy!