She’s about to start a technical rehearsal when I begin my interview with Layo-Christina Akinlude, the up-and-coming star of Shared Experience’s new production of As You Like It, and after a busy national tour that began in July, her ability to squeeze an interview into a hectic schedule and still remain relaxed, friendly and engaging is the first thing that impresses upon me.
With As You Like It about to come to Oxford (running at the Playhouse from November 14th – 18th), we begin by talking immediately about the production. Shared Experience, formerly the resident theatre company of the Oxford Playhouse, is a group renowned for its vibrant and distinctive physical style, so I ask if it was this innovative style of theatre that drew Akinlude to the project. The answer, she says, is both the exciting possibilities offered by the text, and the vision of the play captured by the company. “Shared Experience is spearheaded by lots of female creative artists, one of them includes our director. And essentially, As You Like It is that show, it’s that show that is spearheaded by a woman, and the whole plot is about a woman taking charge of her own destiny, which is hugely refreshing”.
What does she think makes the Shared Experience version of As You Like It stand out? “It’s current. It is applicable to the world in which we live, especially as regards men and women and the ways in which we interact with each other. When we look at everything that’s going on in the world right now, I think it’s very important to have a play like As You Like It.”
Akinlude plays Celia, the headstrong daughter of Duke Frederick, and with all this talk of strong women, I wonder if she can see any resemblance to her character in herself. “I think a lot of what she does I can relate to. I went to, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, The Guilty Feminist? I went to one of their live shows, and one of the talks was about how women use silence to gain power, and it was really moving. I think Celia is a good example of someone who does that, she uses her silence to acquire what she wants”.
She’s recently completed a stint as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s globe, another example of a strong-willed female role. Are there any other Shakespearean characters that Akinlude has her eye on? “I think Lady Macbeth is probably up there, and I would also say Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. There’s so many female roles… and of course, I’m doing one now!”.
Outside Shakespeare, “which I love”, she describes an ambition to play the lead role of Ifemelu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award for its heart-rendering tale of a young Nigerian woman emigrating to the United States for college. Akinlude’s conscious proclivity towards parts that uplift women and provoke thought is one that should be admired.
My next question – about her plans following As You Like It – is met with knowing laughter and an enigmatic “only time will tell”, so we chat briefly about the experiences of young actors trying to find work. In reference to the idea of getting a so-called ‘big break’, Akinlude says that “it requires, as I’m sure you know, a level of discipline that is alien to even professional actors, it’s hard, and one must be prepared for that”. But still, she adds, “if you can’t imagine doing anything else, then pursue it, and pursue it with everything. If it’s what’s going to make your heart beat at night then do it, and do it with everything you have. Be shameless, be relentless in the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s good advice from a woman who has clearly found her own happiness in inspiring others.
As You Like It runs from November 14th – 18th at the Oxford Playhouse. Tickets are available at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/whats-on/all-shows/as-you-like-it/6054#tickets