CHUK IWUJI’S JOURNEY FROM ECONOMIST TO ACTOR
ROMEO AND JULIETp. p. Editor’s note:Actors From the London Stage is based at Notre Dame.
’He’s stronger than I thought," says Chuk Iwuji. “He’s a kid who grows into a man. I thought he was all light and romance.”
In a telephone interview from Pocatello, Idaho, Iwuji is describing the character of Romeo, whom he will play this weekend in the Actors from the London Stage production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Lobero Theatre. Iwuji will not only play Romeo, but several other characters, as is the style of this popular acting troupe, whose visits here are becoming an annual tradition. This is Iwuji’s first season with the company.
“I’ve been lucky in how we doled out the characters,” he notes, adding that remaining four actors take on many more characters over the course of the play.
Working without a director, stage manager or set designer, the five-person troupe spends five weeks in rehearsal building a Shakespeare play from the ground up. With a minimal budget for props, the company takes a few ordinary objects and effortlessly turns them into a number of useful combinations. Other than that, the stage is bare except for the actors.
“We couldn’t bring swords with us, because they’d arrest us before getting on the plane,” Iwuji half jokes. “So we’ve had to work that through: How do our characters fight and die? But the invention here shows how little money you truly need to put on a good show.”
Of course, it helps if you’re a good actor with a talent for Shakespeare, and Iwuji just happens to be so. However, his stage-bound destiny was hidden for many years. Iwuji was born and raised in Nigeria. Though he makes no great claims for his first roles, he appeared in several school plays televised on local TV.
Actors from the London Stage: Peter Lindford, Chuk Iwuji, Victoria Duarri, David Acton and Francesca Ryan, clockwise from left.
“I was a right little thespian,” he says. In 1985, his parents joined the United Nations as diplomats and travel became an important part of all their lives. At 12, he was sent away to boarding school in Surrey, England ? his accent, refined and warm, tells you how formative were those years. His parents were economists, so Iwuji studied that field, too.
After graduation, he looked westward. “My father said he would let me study in America only if I could get accepted to an Ivy League school,” says Iwuji, who promptly did just that, landing at Yale.
In his junior year, Iwuji began to wonder if he wouldn’t like to try acting again. The desire was there, but not the follow-through. “I would sign up for auditions and then not turn up,” he says. Finally he went to a call-back, though he hadn’t been to the original audition. “I didn’t know there was a difference,” he says, “I just thought it was a regular audition. The people didn’t know who I was, but they let me have a go anyway.”
Soon, not only was Iwuji acting, but he was sometimes taking on two plays at once. While at work on his second play, Sam Shepard’s “True West” (he played the agent), he saw auditions posted for Jean Anouilh’s “Becket.”
“‘Becket,’ the movie version, with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, was one of my favorite films when I was 11 years old,” he says, “I know that sounds weird, but I loved it.” He auditioned for the role of Henry and was offered the title part. It was that role and Iwuji’s “raw talent” that caught the eye of a scout from the University of Wisconsin. After Iwuji graduated with his economics degree, he moved to Milwaukee to begin an MFA program in acting.
“They destroy you in your first year,” Iwuji says of the program. “They make you believe you are the worst actor ever. Then they build you back up into a professional.”
Long, grueling days didn’t stop him from landing roles outside the course, performing Shakespeare for two seasons at the American Players Theater. It was that combo of training and experience that easily landed him a job at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he returned to England.
“The first Shakespeare I saw was (Franco) Zeffirelli’s film version of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” he says. In boarding school Iwuji fell in love with the Bard when they studied “Anthony and Cleopatra” (“I can’t wait till I’m 40 and I can play Anthony,” he says). But there’s no special reason that Iwuji’s resume is 90 percent Shakespeare. “That’s the way it came down,” he says. Still, fellow actors from the RSC have noted that it’s a lot of Shakespeare experience for a man in his late 20s.
Just as the Actors from the London Stage build a play from scratch, Iwuji says that he approaches every Shakespeare play with a blank slate. “You have to tell yourself you know nothing,” he says. “It’s by no means easy, but it’s a challenge that I enjoy.”
At the RSC, Iwuji worked with many of the masters of British theater, including Peter Hall, Cicely Berry and Edward Hall, Peter’s son. They, along with Greg Hicks and other actors, have fine-tuned his verse delivery.
“You have to trust the language,” Iwuji says, when asked about Shakespeare. “Trust the words, and not try to impose upon them another meaning. Modern actors go looking for motivation, but I think it’s all there in Shakespeare. Listen to what the words give you ? the lines take you to the emotion.”
The Actors from the London Stage use the tour to visit high school classes and introduce Shakespeare to a new generation. “A majority of what we do is teach,” he says. “But you come in as an actor, not an instructor. Certainly we’ve changed the lives of many students. We had one girl read the part of Juliet and were told later that this had been the first time she’d spoken in class all year.”
Iwuji is still learning, too, more than ever in this company. “The creation here is basic, organic,” he says. “Rehearsals are negotiations, about letting go of the ego for the sake of the play. It’s made me a better listener.”
And for Romeo?
“I’ve usually played harder roles, like Don Pedro in ‘Much Ado.’ But I’ve needed this as an actor. Romeo is not weak. He has humor, a temper and is full of hormones. To play him, you have to tear your heart open, be shot straight through with vulnerability. And that’s what makes him strong.”