On Stage Interview: Michele Austin in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

Michele Austin returns to the theatre to play Mad Mary at the Kiln Kilburn Theatre. Alt A Review caught up with her for a quick chat between shows.

She previously appeared in The House That Will Not Stand and The Riots. A renowned stage and screen actress her theatre work includes Instructions for Correct Assembly, Breath Boom, Been So Long (Royal Court Theatre), The Seagull (Lyric Theatre Hammersmith), Medea (Almeida Theatre), Pride and Prejudice (Sheffield Theatres), I Know How I Feel About Eve, Out in the Open (Hampstead Theatre), To Kill a Mockingbird (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), Sixty-Six Books (Bush Theatre), Generations (Young Vic), and Our Country’s Good (Out of Joint/Young Vic). For television, her work includes Dark Heart, The CoronerCasual Vacancy, Death in Paradise, Harry & Paul, Secret Life, The Canterbury Tales and Gimme Gimme; and for film, The Children’s Act, What We Did on Our Holidays, Parking Wars, Another Year, The Infidel, Valentine’s Day, All or Nothing and Secrets and Lies.

ALT: Tell us a bit about your character Mad Mary?

Mary is based on a real lady who lived in Kilburn. She was known as Mad Shirley, or Mary, or Voodoo woman. She would shout and spit and curse at people! She only appears in the novel for about a page and a half. But in the play, she appears the whole way through.

ALT: Did you read the book and where you familiar with Zadie and her work?

I did read the book, and I loved it.  It felt like the first book I had read that had people like me in it. First generation immigrants.  I really enjoy Zadie’s writing. I feel that she can tap into a  metropolitan multicultural London life

ALT: Tell us about the important themes in the story?

For me one of the most important themes for me, is the immigrant experience in London in the 80’s and 90’s. also the chaos of the ‘Empire’

ALT: You have an impressive resume of theatre credits how did you get started?

I had a brilliant set of English Teachers at secondary school and I did lots of drama. One teacher in particular called Mr Fursland, helped me with my drama school audition and I’m forever in his debt.

ALT: Tell us what the audience has to look forward to in White Teeth ?

It’s a funny, fast paced but also moving night out. A play with Heart.

ALT: Is the book and the stage play a close adaptation?

The novel has a lot more characters in it, so Stephen (Stephen Sharkey) has distilled it down . But I think that the essence is there.

ALT: What is it like working with Stephen Sharkey?

Stephen has been incredibly generous and open. He has been working on this adaptation for 6 years. As Mad Mary grew as a character in workshops, he was happy to ask for my ideas or thoughts.

ALT: Where do you call home?

I love London. I grew up in North London, not that far from Kilburn. but now I’m a South Londoner, in Brixton.

ALT: How did you prepare for your role, what if any were challenges?

I spoke to a few people who knew Mary and got lots of stories about her. She was very aggressive , so the challenge has been to honour her wherever she is. And not petrify the audience!

ALT: Can you tell me what you like most about being on stage?

Well. In this play it is the immediacy. Seeing the audience faces. Which I get to do a lot as I talk to them. Also hearing black members of the audience laughing with recognition at certain words and situations.

ALT: Thank you.

What you need to know about “White Teeth”

In 2000 Smith’s novel “White Teeth” was part of a publishing bidding war and it went on to win an array of awards, shooting the then young writer into the public eye.

The Story: Rosie Jones, the Iqbal twins, their parents, their grandparents, Mad Mary and an avalanche of other characters who make up the everyday chaos of Kilburn High Road come together in an extraordinary revelry of NW6. An epic comedy with music and dance, this theatrical rollercoaster takes us on a fast-paced journey through history, different cultures and chance encounters. Director Indhu Rubasingham and playwright Stephen Sharkey work together to produce this musical on British identity. We are biting our teeth with excitement for opening night.

What and Where: WHITE TEETH, Kiln Theatre 269 Kilburn High street NW6 7RJ Date: 26 Oct 18 – 22 Dec 18, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM BOOK TICKETS

Read our review here.

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