I May Destroy You star takes on challenge of playing three cloned sons

Paapa Essiedu in rehearsals for A Number at The Old Vic

Paapa Essiedu in rehearsals for A Number at The Old Vic - Credit: Manuel Harlan

After playing Hamlet for the RSC and appearing in TV roles in I May Destroy You, Press and Anne Boleyn, Islington-based actor Paapa Essiedu is back on stage for the first time since appearing in Kiln Theatre's Pass Over in early 2020. The Finsbury Park resident stars opposite Lennie James in Caryl Churchill's A Number, a Black Mirror-esque drama which sees him play three cloned sons confronting the father who abandoned them.

Q How are you feeling about getting back on stage?

A: I’m really excited. As an actor, you get to the point where you don’t want to do a play just for the sake of it. You want to do plays because they can be meaningful and resonate with a modern audience. I feel this play does that. I’m a little bit terrified, but I feel like that every time I start a new play.

Q What drew you to A Number?

A: Lennie spoke to me about this play ages ago. Then The Old Vic got in touch and I immediately found it arresting on the page. I’ve never done a Caryl Churchill play before but my experience from early in rehearsals is it has so many layers. Every time you read it your interpretation is flipped… and then it flips, again and again.

Paapa stars opposite Lennie James in A Number at The Old Vic

Paapa stars opposite Lennie James in A Number at The Old Vic - Credit: Manuel Harlan

Q: Why should people come and see it?

A: It's an exploration of parenthood and the symbiosis between a father and son – it’s about what we do to our parents, what they do to us and the effects those relationships have on our lives. That’s something everybody can relate to, regardless of their relationship with their parents.

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Q: What would you like the audience to reflect on when they leave?

A: I’m not trying to make anyone come away with anything specific. The beauty of live theatre is you bring your body into the room and interact with a story and the audience are given the right to respond however you want. Clap, don’t clap, leave, stay. That said, Caryl Churchill, director Lyndsey Turner and the rest of us have collaborated to create something rich and vibrant, so I hope it’s emotionally provoking and will spark conversation and reflection.

Q: You’ve credited Lennie James as an early career inspiration how are you feeling about sharing the stage with him?

A: For a lot of actors this guy is an inspiration. He’s part of that wave of British actors who started here and went to America to work on television and film in a large scale way. I remember watching him in a Channel 4 adaptation of a Roy Williams play called Fallout (2008) thinking ‘this is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like this on television before’. It was around the time I was thinking about going to drama school so, for me, there’s a direct link between his work and my own ambitions. To share the stage – and the struggle – with him is crazy. He’s the most generous-hearted and minded person. Crazy, smart and wonderful to be around.

Hamlet RSC starring Paapa Essiedu

Paapa Essiedu won the Ian Charleson award for his performance as Hamlet for the RSC - Credit: Manuel Harlan

Q: What do you enjoy apart from acting?

A: Watching and playing football. I love going to gigs and was meant to be seeing Lil Simz in December, but I couldn’t find the time with rehearsals. There's a band I saw in Dalston in late 2021 called Onipa. They’re a Ghanian, Afro-futuristic collective. They’ve got a beautiful vibe, real energy and an amazing cross-cultural sound.

Q: Were you in North London during the pandemic?

A: Yes. I’m originally from Walthamstow, and I’ve spent time in South and East London, but I always return to North London for its green space. There are three big parks on my doorstep, so at a time where we could only leave the house for an hour a day, it was a blessing to have them five minutes from me.

Q: Any other favourite locations in North London?

A: A hidden gem called Sage Kitchen. (In Mountgrove Road, N5) It’s a café with an eclectic mix of superb food. Honestly, it’s one of the most banging brunches. If you’ve had a long weekend, you’re tired or you need a pick-me-up, Sage Kitchen will look after you. Big portions, proper flavour. Everything.

Q: What have you got coming up?

A: I filmed Extinction last year for Sky, written by Joe Barton who’s everywhere right now. It’s a wild and wonderful tale that's incredibly difficult to describe and has got a banging cast and a brilliant creative team behind it.

A Number is at the Old Vic from January 24 to March 19, 2022.

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