Features Published 6 June 2019

Rebekah Murrell: “It is becoming less OK to not acknowledge the greatness of Blackness”

Rebekah Murrell is directing J'Ouvert, a tale of carnival culture at Theatre503. Here, she talks unconventional career paths, ticket prices, and the renaissance in Black theatre.
J N Benjamin

‘J’Ouvert’ at Theatre503.

Rebekah Murrell remembers sitting in the Introduction to Directing course at Young Vic Theatre not too long ago and being asked the question: if you were given unlimited budget and you could work on any stage, what would you do? Her response was “an extraordinary story about three ordinary girls from London, so it’s mad that we’re here just a year or so later – it’s really my dream job”. Just over a year ago, Murrell was virtually unknown. In that time, she has appeared in her professional debut at the National Theatre – as Anita in Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, followed by her West End debut in the same show. Now, she’s embarking on another career debut –  as director of the Theatre503 production of Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert.

Murrell always loved reading and stories, but never intended to pursue a career in acting. As a child she took classes at North London Performing Arts Centre, which led to a part in a BBC TV series when she was a teenager. But when the time came, she really wanted to do an academic degree – and so, encouraged by her mother, she read English Literature at Manchester University. Whilst there, she immersed herself in the community arts scene, facilitating projects with refugee groups, young people, and people with experience of the criminal justice system. This work led her to the charity English Pen, where she managed their outreach programme for four years. But every theatre person has their one play – the one that was life changing in some way – and for Murrell, it was Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand. She saw Indhu Rubasingham’s production at Tricycle Theatre, as it was then called, in 2014. She was so struck by it that she returned soon after to join the Tricycle Theatre’s Young Company. Being around so many young creatives doing so many exciting things ignited something – she quit her job, auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and was cast as the lead in a production that year. It was well received – the Evening Standard described Murrell as ‘fearsomely good’.

If there is an example that there is no one way to ‘make it’ in the theatre industry, Murrell is it. Her career thus far is a series of opportunities that presented themselves when she was looking in another direction. She left her job to do an acting course with the idea that she would then go on to be a director. While on that course she met Roy Alexander Weise, who offered her the audition for Nine Night. The play “was a complete life-changer. I was on a certain trajectory with my peers and we were scrapping for jobs and suddenly I was flung into this new arena where I was five steps ahead without having the foundations – it felt very exposing and scary. It’s like my body was pushed forward and it took my soul a bit to catch up”. Coming out of the other end, she imagined she would continue to act for another ten years before she got to direct her first play – then J’Ouvert happened.

Navigating the industry as a not-formally-trained, relatively young creative, Murrell is conscious of the steps she skipped to get to where she is. “It’s interesting to see how some relationships change. Some people don’t wanna talk to you anymore. Or, there are some people in their fifties who have never worked at the National Theatre before who might make a little comment”. She shrugs, “it was just luck – that role came up at that time. But I have to thank Grandmas”. Who else does she look to for inspiration? “Indhu, she was the only woman of colour running a theatre building in 2015. Madani (Younis), too – he was always nice and encouraging; the sort of person who said here’s the door – it’s open. And, obviously, Roy. I already loved him from The Mountaintop, and then he came in and did a workshop on this one-day acting course and I was well excited when my scene got chosen to work with him. I just think he is one of the most special people. He knows his shit and always conducts himself with pride and respect for everyone around him”.

It’s notable that Murrell’s work so far has remained closely aligned with elements of her own identity. Her first major project, Nine Night is about being Black and British but also about mourning rituals – the tradition is similar to the practice of sitting shiva in the Jewish faith. She recalls receiving the Nine Night script shortly after the death of her Jewish Grandma and wondering if she was still there, somewhere, guiding her path. Staying close to her own personal experience isn’t exactly intentional, but it is definitely significant. “As a Black artist [you] shouldn’t be limited to only making work about your own experience. But, I think your experience is a damn good place to start.” That her directorial debut is a play about Black women and carnival “feels hugely important – it’s a massive opportunity to work with Yas, who is a close friend, on this piece of our mutual culture and history. It’s a massive privilege”. Murrell is aware, though that this privilege is a double edged sword. Making art about Blackness and Black culture can create a tension – “we’re making art in a very very small pool and there is a weird thing of feeling like you need to represent or please everybody. And I firmly believe that because you’re Black you shouldn’t be forced to do things a certain way. This is Yasmin’s story. And it is our play about carnival. This is a piece of Black work we are unapologetic about”.

Over the past few years increased calls for a more representative arts industry across the board have meant many more Black writers, Black directors, Black actors and Black stories on theatre stages big and small. This week Lynn Nottage’s Sweat will open for its eagerly anticipated transfer from Donmar Warehouse, after Arinzé Kene’s Misty and, of course, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night took the same path to the West End. And it’s not just in London. Inua Ellams’ Barbershop Chronicles is rounding up an international tour, Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho enjoyed five star reviews in Northampton last year and Chinonyerem Odimba’s Princess & the Hustler, a story about family life in Bristol at the time of the famous bus boycotts, sold out the Bristol Old Vic. It’s not the first time Black artists have enjoyed something of a spotlight – there was a similar cultural moment in the 70s and 80s on both sides of the Atlantic. Murrell isn’t sure what it would take to ensure it isn’t just another flash in the pan but thinks there’s something about this one that feels potentially different. “The world in general is changing and there is a wide sense of it feels like a renaissance of all liberation struggles. It feels like it is more ‘for Us, by Us’ and we’re taking that and making art for each other and for ourselves rather than trying to make art that appeases to a mainstream in some way. I feel like in the world it is becoming less OK to not acknowledge the greatness of Blackness. And institutions are realising – whether for economic reasons or because people with good sense or modern-mindedness see that these are really exciting stories to tell – [it’s time to] welcome then into the space in a way they never have done before.”

Murrell is forthright about accessibility to these stories once they are in these spaces. “With Nine Night, it was really frustrating for us that the tickets were super expensive – there were a lot of people who couldn’t come just because of that”. She remembers a conversation with Roy about it at the time in which he said that it’s not cool that we just keep going Black people are poor, they don’t have money – they’re poor and they’re rich. His point was that Nine Night is a Black show but it is also a West End show. Do we devalue it because it is a Black story? Her opinion is slightly different. She acknowledges that the Black community has inherited socioeconomic disadvantage and strongly believes appropriate measures can and should be put in place to level up the impact of that on things like access to the arts. “I think a lot more could have been done [for Nine Night] with not a lot of difficulty. They could have created a staggered pricing system that could have been means tested. But, it’s an interesting comment on the value we place on Black work. Is the world less valuable just because it’s about a community that has less historically?.”

Directing peers, and sometimes people who are older or more experienced seems a challenging undertaking for someone in Murrell’s position. Is establishing boundaries difficult? She explains that “In some ways the way you create boundaries as an actor and the way you create boundaries as a director are in direct conflict. As an actor, you have to swallow certain things and deal with certain situations and just follow. If you’re a natural leader or if you feel like you’re going in the wrong direction, that can be difficult. As a director, sometimes you’re not sure about a thing but you have to lead people anyway – you have to put on a facade and stand firm”. If her life depended on it and she could only have one, she couldn’t choose between acting and directing – “my brain loves directing, but my belly loves acting. But my heart loves both. I just wanna make stories and be a part of telling stories that change the world”. Writing is the only medium missing from Murrell’s creative trinity, but she intends to rectify that later this year by writing her first film script. Multiskilled, multidisciplinary creatives are on the rise – Murrell’s theory on this is that it gives artists greater agency; “there’s so much art happening in a lateral way that we don’t necessarily need to wait for people who feel like they’re at the top of the pyramid”.

Our chat lasts for twice as long as we intended and Murrell’s responses are deliciously loquacious orations, often helter-skeltering around the point, but always returning back to it. We also cover the unparalleled support she has received from her creative peers – she likened it to that internet meme where the boy is in a martial arts class, trying to break a piece of wood with his foot while all his classmates shout words of encouragement from sidelines and when he finally breaks it, they all shower him with affection and exuberant congratulations. She talks about industry codes – those pesky rules you only ever really get to know if you move in certain circles; circles from which Black, working class people are usually excluded; and the injustice of the Grenfell fire – the show will be performed on the evening that marks two-years since the event. When I ask her about a return to acting after J’Ouvert, it’s the shortest answer she gives: 100%.

J’Ouvert is on at Theatre503 until Saturday 22nd June. More info and tickets here

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J N Benjamin

J.N. Benjamin often has opinions about theatre, and sometimes writes about them. Talk to her @reviewsandtings on twitter.

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