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Called To Be King

When Chuk Iwuji auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare’s History Plays, it was for a relatively small role. Only to realise he had a date with destiny.

rschenryvipt10603He speaks with a staunch confidence, gives an effusive response to every question asked. Chuk Iwuji holds nothing back. Currently playing the role of Henry VI, Parts I, II and III in The Histories, a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Roundhouse Theatre, Camden. Iwuji understands he has a story to tell and he is not afraid to let it all out.

Iwuji, moved back to England from the US, on the advice of his late brother Danny. Danny told him about David Oyelowo being cast in the lead role of King Henry VI by the RSC. According to Iwuji, his brother said: “Maybe this is the time you should think about moving back to London because things are looking good for young black actors if the RSC can cast a black king.”  Though Iwuji had previously worked with the RSC, he admits he went along to the auditions for The Histories, with a relatively small role in mind. However, Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the RSC had other plans and asked him to read for Henry VI, and so began his illustrious journey over the last two years. When his agent informed him that Boyd wanted him as Henry VI, it did not come as a surprise because it was fate calling, and five years to the day he moved back, Iwuji said: “When I got the call to do Henry VI. I just felt there was no way I could be overwhelmed. This was the way it was supposed to be.”

The Histories, a fistful of plays by William Shakespeare popularly known as the History Cycle opened in Stratford-Upon-Avon, back in 2006 to critical acclaim and rapturous audience response. Directed by Boyd, history was in the making. The RSC was doing what no other theatre had ever done, working with the same group of actors over the course of two and half years to stage all eight plays. Boyd was once again, breaking down casting barriers with a black actor in a lead role.

Born in Nigeria, where he lived until the age of 10, Iwuji is a graduate of Yale University and studied economics but later gave it up and trained at the University of Wisconsin on an acting scholarship. He describes Henry VI as a: “Very unique because he doesn’t quite fit into any of the normal categories of a character. He is not your regular or tragic hero and he is not your lover. He is the sort of guy that exits almost on a different plane. He is a character like nothing else I have ever played.” On making history as part of the first ensemble the RSC has ever worked with over the course a lengthy period of time, he said: “A lot of these experiences have been unique. I literary can’t compare it to anything else because nothing else and possibly nothing else in theatre after this can possibly match something like this.”

His favourite of the trilogy is Part III because “He gains a state of enlightenment. He goes into another cosmos and it’s the first and only time in all three plays, he is allowed to sit down with the audience and say ‘this is how I feel.’ I am relived that I can do that,” he says.

Despite the magnitude of Henry VI as a character, Iwuji is confident in his ability and sense of responsibility to his character. However, he does not believe any character should be bigger than what it is – a character. “I know there is a big myth about some of the great characters like Hamlet and Othello. I don’t believe that because you approach them the same way you approach any role. You try to understand them. You learn your lines and find the core and truth of the character.” He also thinks there is no reason why he should not play the role of an English Monarch on stage. “Well, shy shouldn’t I?” he asked.

While the role has been challenging due to its demands on him as an actor, Iwuji also admits that living and breathing the words of an English King on stage has been the highlight of his career. “If you want a summation of it, it’s been the most joyfully, challenging, frustrating and enlightening experience of my life.” Iwuji, who comes from a close-knit family, explains the moment that will forever stay with him was the day his parents came to see a trilogy of Henry VI. He said: They sat through it all and as the audience went mad at the end, I spotted them. I could see my mum and dad with the biggest grin and it almost like everything they had done; best schools, trying to make life as easy as possible and support up until then, led to that moment. So, yeah, that has to be it,” he says.

However, don’t expect to see less of Iwuji any time soon because “The dream is to do everything. Why not? We are in a profession where you have all these options if it works for you.”

Note: This article was written in 2008 and first published in The Voice Newspaper.

Image: Elli Kurtzz/RSC

Watch out for Chuk Iwuji in the forthcoming production of Thebes at the National Theatre.


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