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Black actors take on royal roles in new play

ROYAL ROLE: Alice Vilanculo in Victoria's Knickers

THE THEATRE industry continues to spearhead diversity in a way that is unprecedented among other art forms.

From the influx of black British productions like Nine Night to Eclipse , to key figures occupying notable positions in theatre– Young Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah for example – British theatre is seeing a shift in representation and storytelling – and the latest production to come out of Soho Theatre adds to that perfectly.

Victoria Knickers tells the tale of a true story of the Buckingham Palace intruder who snuck into the Queen’s royal chambers, and presents an epic comedy and royal love story which has been dominating at Soho Theatre since its premiere on October 27.

“It doesn’t sound like something that would be a true story, but that’s the beauty of reimagining it,” says Alice Vilanculo, the actress who takes on the role of Queen Victoria in the production.

Vilanculo is accompanied by Nigerian actor Oseloka Obi who plays Prince Albert in the new play, signifying a positive change to diversity in theatre as two black actors take on the role of historical white figures.

“The play is written around us as a company [National Youth Theatre] as well as sticking to the historical facts of what happened. The way I researched this role was looking towards the TV series Victoria and trying to discover the truth of certain relationships between her mum, the prime ministers around her and equally her relationship with Albert,” recalls Alice.

Victoria’s Knickers forms part of the West End REP season of three plays from the National Youth Theatre (NYT), with Victoria’s Knickers running at Soho Theatre until November 10.

The NYT REP aims to provide accessible training for the best and diverse young talent, with over 56% of the REP Company this year including actors of colour.

“Being black actors and playing white characters hasn’t necessarily been a challenge but it’s been so important for us,” says Obi. “We’ve been educated and fortunate to be apart of a process which is transformative. The fact that we are both young black actors playing historical figures, we are keeping history relevant and educating audiences and telling a story void of race, and just sharing stories with feelings and emotions that everyone feels.”

Theatre’s role in society is undeniably underestimated when compared to film, music and art – but the dynamic cast of Victoria Knickers continue to show that theatre continues to dominate and set trends as the oldest and original art form.

“I think theatre is the medium out of all them that is realty changing and is more progressive - I’m not quite sure why that is,” questions Obi, “It’d be beautiful if the other mediums followed suit because their outreach is wider than theatre. But theatre is leading the way and I think fingers crossed, period dramas will follow.”

The influx of British period dramas from Gentleman Jack to Vanity Fair, creates a larger hurdle for BAME British actors, who struggle to get roles in productions, which focus on a predominately white story and history. But with the recreation of Les Miserables, which will star David Oyelowo plus more in the pipeline, could we see a change?

“With time, other mediums will follow. Theatre was the first medium before TV - it was the father of these different art forms and we’ll see a change,” says Vilanculo.

While we wait and see if British period dramas follow suit, Obi reiterated the importance of telling our own stories.

“It’s important that as we move forward, even though we want to see more diversity in period dramas – its important to tell stories of our own history, because there’s no good just telling stories of other people.”

“We want to see what was happening in 17th Africa as much we want to hear about the stories we do know. With time we’ll move towards that, but right now we are really excited to bring this peculiar but cool story to audiences and reimagine it in a way you’ve never seen before.

Victoria’s Knickers running at Soho Theatre from 27 October to 10 November at the Soho Theatre

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