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Zawe Ashton: ‘I tried to quit acting and it’s gone very badly’

The star of stage, screen and more opens up about the gruelling 11-year-journey to getting her latest play put on in London and New York

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Zawe Ashton
© Linda Nylind

It’s been a preposterously busy year for London-born star Zawe Ashton. She acted opposite Tom Hiddleston in Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ in London and (currently) on Broadway; her first book came out; and, 11 years since she wrote it – and with two other plays in between – her second play ‘For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad’ is getting joint premieres in New York and London, in two separate productions.

How the hell are you juggling ‘Betrayal’ with two premieres of your play?

‘I wake up early to try and talk to the guys in London around about lunchtime, and then I go to rehearsals for the New York production at 12, and then I go into “Betrayal” at night!’

Is that sensible?

[Laughs] ‘I don’t know. Not sure, not sure…’

What’s the play about?

‘Eleven years ago I was on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, and had some fragments of a play, but I hadn’t found my voice. Then I got in touch with a woman from [now-defunct organisation] the Black Women’s Mental Health Project who provided me with these gut-wrenching statistics regarding the relationship that women of colour have with the medical institutions in the UK. I really wanted to investigate that; I wrote most of it in 24 hours in a sort of fever dream.’

Why has it taken 11 years to stage?

‘There was a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court, which was wonderful: the response was so overwhelming. But when I started to have meetings afterwards the reaction was so different: “We love this play, we love this play, we can’t let you do the play.” It almost seemed that the notion of it being black and being abstract was too much for some people.’

It’s amazing you didn’t just give up…

‘I did give up, two years in! Thankfully, the UK producer of my show, Nina Lyndon, was working at the Royal Court at the time I wrote it and five years ago she said, “Would you mind getting it out of the drawer?” And I was very reluctant, because I hadn’t realised how traumatised I was. I’m not saying: “It’s taken 11 years to put this masterpiece on.” It’s not the Sistine Chapel. But I share it because I think it’s very important to have other writers read about what I’ve experienced and if it can help them in any way, then truly this has not been a waste of time.’

What about the off-Broadway production?

‘I approached Soho Rep here [in New York] and I said: look I think the time for this play in England has passed, I’m carrying it around like some sort of ghost that needs to be exorcised. They’ve produced lots of brilliant British writers: Debbie Tucker Green, Alice Birch… And they said yep, we’ll do it, and it just so happened that it was at the same time all of the funding for my UK production suddenly came through and we didn’t expect it to. It’s almost like the spirit of the play suddenly broke through; it’s a very proud moment.’

How’s your year of ‘Betrayal’ going?

‘It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful! At the end of 2017 I tried to quit acting and it’s gone very badly. It’s led to some of the most enjoyable acting experiences that I’ve ever had, “Betrayal” and [Netflix movie] “Velvet Buzzsaw”. Creating the work I’m meant to do is what’s on my agenda right now.’

London production Stoke Newington Town Hall, until Nov 9.

New York production Soho Rep, until Nov 17.

‘Betrayal’ is at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (New York), until Dec 8.

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A Doll's House, Lyric Hammersmith, 2019
© Helen Maybanks
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