First published on 23 May 2012. Updated on 4 Jul 2012.
You’ve just finished a season of A Comedy of Errors with Britain’s National Theatre – and you’ve said that Shakespearean acting is “like juggling while trying to speak Mandarin Chinese”…
Actually, I should add to that – while also riding a unicycle!
So, does the return to comedy mean you can put your feet up?
No: comedy’s hard, you know! But to do a Shakespearean comedy, the material’s 500 years old – it’s like Adam Hills’ act. I’m kidding! We decided to set it in a cosmopolitan city like London, and me and my servants’ characters were illegal immigrants coming from Nigeria. It made it very fresh and very new. It was incredibly stretching.
You’d already played Othello and been in A Comedy of Errors. Is comic Shakespeare more natural for you than tragic?
Naturally – being funny is my job. When I was in the rehearsals, I didn’t bang on about it, but I kind of knew what to do to react to things. And the director actually had to take me aside and say, “You don’t have to do that – the focus is on that person, and you’re pulling funny faces!”
Can we expect a few classical references in your new show, Cradle to Rave, or is it an iambic pentameter-free zone?
You’re more likely to get George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and James Brown. It’s about me growing up in Britain, a Jamaican kid in a predominantly white country, and experiencing everyone else’s music. The music I grew up with and ended up loving came about because mum was very keen on us integrating: “You got to h’integrate if you want to fit h’in.” And you choose the tribe to be in based on the music you love. My tribe, strangely, was this diverse thing – it was a Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, gospel, Black Sabbath kind of tribe. And, because you can’t stay in your tribe and meet members of the opposite sex, we’d go to the disco. Girls like to go to discos and dance around their handbags – so we went where the handbags were!
You’re making us jealous of the music scene.
The ’70s was amazing. If you think about it, hip hop started in the late ’70s – and now, it’s become more conservative. American-style hip hop is used to sell everything – 50 Cent selling vitaminwater. Back when it started, it had more of a political conscience; now it’s just how many rooms you’ve got in your car.
Do you think your fans will be surprised to find this musical side of you?
Every time I do a show, I always talk about music. I’ll set aside ten minutes to take the piss out of what’s going on in music at the moment. So now I get to do a whole show like this. I get to talk about my favourite music, I get to sing, I get to talk about how my life’s intertwined with music from the time I was little to the present day.
So is music the next career path?
There was a time in the ’80s and early ’90s [when] I was making records, and I had meetings with producers like Simon Cowell. But there was a key moment when Trevor Horn [producer for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Seal] basically told me that unless I was prepared to give up comedy and just concentrate on music, I shouldn’t do it. Comedy had bought my mum a house – I wasn’t prepared to take that risk.
You’ve packed a lot in personally in the last few years? Has that changed your act?
As you get older, you tend to do more personal shows. But I wanna talk about what’s going on in the world, and I wouldn’t dream of boring my audience with [only] stuff about my personal life. I’m divorced, I have a 20-year-old daughter, I care about my family very, very deeply – that to me is not fodder for comedy.
How will you tailor the new show for Australian audiences?
I’ll be including local music: INXS, Midnight Oil, Cat Empire... people like that are some of my favourites.
The Cat Empire?
Well, anything that penetrates the big world is stuff I relate to. Whenever I go on tour, I always ask who’s the band and I listen to local radio. There used to be a band called Silverchair, wasn’t there? Nirvana-lite! And is the guy from Midnight Oil still in politics? I can imagine that, some guy having to go through loads and loads of paperwork, thinking, “What is this bollocks? I used to be in a band!”
You’ve been on stage nearly four decades. Do you find the youngsters coming to you for advice?
Not really. The youngsters are all really waiting for me to die! The joke amongst the black comedians in this country is: we’re waiting for Lenny Henry to die so we can get a television series. Which I don’t think is very funny at all. There is plenty of room for everybody at the top, so long as nobody sits down.