Books for young adults tackling some tough issues are big business now and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is a work that has touched millions of teenagers.
In Blackman’s dystopian world Sephy is a Cross, and Callum is a Nought, in a world with strict racial and social divides. As violence breaks out Sephy who is the daughter of the Home Secretary, and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.
The genius of Blackman’s vision is that racial power dynamics are flipped on their head asking us to think about how hatred destroys lives in a different way. Pilot Theatre commissioned Sabrina Mahfouz to adapt it for the stage before taking it on tour just before the pandemic closed theatres, where it was seen by over 30,000 people on tour with 40% of the audience aged under twenty.
Now it’s back on the road with Pilot’s Artistic Director Esther Richardson directing a strong cast including Chris Jack who is reprising his role as bigoted Cross leader Kamal who stokes the flames of racial hatred for this own twisted ends, and his ambition blinds him to the consequences for his own child.
For anyone who hasn’t got a teenager what is Noughts and Crosses all about?
So, you’ve got Sephy, who’s a Cross, and you have Callum, who’s a Nought, and the Crosses are the dominant race. They’re the upper echelons of society, the wealthy, the rich, and the Noughts are the underclass.
It seems to have echoes of Romeo and Juliet.
It’s a story of forbidden love for people who want to be together, but due to political circumstances, racial circumstances, they can’t really be together. So the story is about how much do they really want to be together? And will they come to problems down the line if they do stay together?
The idea of exploring racism and oppression by reversing the racial power dynamics is an incredibly clever idea.
I think the thing about this story is it probably resonates more now in 2022 than it ever has done, purely because of the world that we live in, which is why I think it’s such important work that has to be seen. Because it’s almost like if you flipped everything around what would happen? It’s asking lots of questions of today’s society.
You play power hungry politician Kamal, who let’s be honest is the out and out villain of the piece.
The character that I play is one that he’s almost got this sort of two faced, or two sided, elements to him. He’s got the media side, and he’s also got the element of personal agenda. So you’ve got these two different sorts of juxtapositions working together, and I think that is almost like a parallel of some aspects of the society that we live in today.
And his hatred ends up causing him problems in his own household.
Kamal Hadley is the head of the family, and he’s also the Home Secretary, so he has enormous wealth and enormous power. I guess the reason why perhaps he’s the villain is because he’s a person who doesn’t like the Noughts. That’s putting it mildly.
He also has the power of life and death in this dystopian nightmare of a world.
He doesn’t want to come across as being two faced, so he’s got this public persona, but also got his private side. He’s an absent father, he doesn’t have the love of his wife, or he doesn’t love his wife. I think he’s a man who in terms of the Noughts and the Crosses, but the Noughts in particular, he can literally choose whether they live or die, that’s the sort of power that he has. And it’s a question of does he make the right choices throughout the play itself.
Playing a villain or a dark character is one of the biggest tasks any actor can take as they try to find the motivation of their characters, or even just a shred of humanity.
I think as an actor that’s one of the challenges that you absolutely embrace with both hands. There are politicians, I hate to say, that I watched over the years, and my question is always a case of what do you see in the media and what they’re like behind doors? My question is, how much do we know these people?
How did you find what makes Kamal tick?
When I’m going through the text itself you find out a lot about your character through what other people say about you as a character. Every time it comes up in terms of my wife, Jasmine, Sephy or Minerva, my daughters, all that text is about them knowing that he’s an absent father, he’s power hungry, and it gets worse throughout the play. Every scene you draw from that because he’s in conflict with pretty much everybody he speaks to. He’s just a man that’s so driven by that, so he is completely lost in terms of himself. He is a borderline sort of narcissist.
Actors always talk about the writing being the bedrock of any production.
it’s a sort of thing where as an actor when you read text like this, and it’s a cliché saying it, it jumps off the page and sings, and all you want to do as an actor is you want to perform it. And that’s actually credit to Malorie, and Serena who adapted this particular piece. I just want to do the work justice, because everything that you need as an actor is on the page, so you just want to get up on your feet and try to create some beautiful work.
Noughts and Crosses has been on tour before when you played Kamal, so what was the reaction of what were mainly young audiences.
Last time it took a lot of us by surprise. I’m in my 40s, but I grew up with people like Sue Townsend writing Adrian Mole and stuff like that rolled up so the reaction from the younger audiences was absolutely insane. They knew the characters, they knew the story, because for them it’s something that they grew up with. It was almost for some of them like watching a Netflix series, purely because they were with you from the moment you stepped on stage.
That unabashed feedback must have felt good on stage?
And vocally there were parts of the play that you couldn’t hear anything because of the noise. They weren’t being disrespectful, they were literally reacting to what they’re seeing because every moment to moment, word for word, they are absolutely living it with you. It was positive, so positive. I wished I had something like this at their age.
What do you hope the audiences for this tour will take away from Noughts and Crosses?
They will hear the dialogue; they’ll hear certain things being said that they will be able to identify with. I think that’s probably the key reason why it’s so successful, is that people can take away little elements of this play and know that it’s almost like it’s speaking to them in particular.
Noughts & Crosses will open at York Theatre Royal from 16-24 September and will then tour to Richmond Theatre, London (27 Sept – 1 Oct); Exeter Northcott (4- 8 Oct); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (11- 15 Oct); Northern Stage, Newcastle (18 – 22 Oct); Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (1-5 Nov); New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (8-12 Nov); The Alexandra Birmingham (15-19 Nov) Liverpool Playhouse (22- 26 Nov); The Lowry, Salford (17-21 Jan 2023), Belgrade Theatre Coventry (24-28 Jan); Rose Theatre, Kingston (31 Jan-11 Feb); Theatre Royal Brighton (21-25 Feb); Oldham Coliseum (14-18 Mar); Poole Lighthouse (21-25 Mar) and Curve Theatre, Leicester (28 Mar-1 Apr)
For more information on Noughts & Crosses visit www.pilot-theatre.com