Interview: Meera Syal

PUBLISHED: 16:19 20 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013

Interview: Meera Syal

Interview: Meera Syal

Actress and comedienne, Meera Syal, is best known for her role as the irascible grandmother on TV's The Kumars at No 42. Now she's turning her hand to Shakespeare as she explains to Alycia Smith-Howard

Smart, witty, unpredictable, tough, yet soft and vulnerable these are words most often used to describe Beatrice, the indefatigable heroine of Shakespeares delightful comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. These same words may also be employed to describe Meera Syal, one of Britains funniest and best-loved comediennes, who is set to play Beatrice at the Royal Shakespeare Company this autumn.

Like Beatrice, the actress, writer, singer, journalist and producer, Meera Syal, has survived on her quick wits, imagination and intellect. Born in Wolverhampton, in 1961, Syal grew up in Essington, a small mining village a few miles to the north of Wolverhampton. When she was a young girl, the family moved to Bloxwich, near Walsall.

With its leafy parks, gardens and village feel, Bloxwich, was both a blessing and a curse for Syal. She is undeniably proud of her West Midlands roots, and considers herself quite fortunate to have had such an upbringing: I am incredibly lucky to have grown up in the countryside: fresh air, freedom and independence. I remember riding my bicycle for hours on end, through fields and meadows. The countryside is so good for the soul. Sadly, this is not a childhood that children have now. Without doubt, I got the better deal.

However, alongside her feelings of breathing space and liberation were feelings of isolation and solitude. At the time, Syals family was the only Asian family in the area. This situation caused her to feel: a little bit apart, as if I were on the outside constantly looking in. Syal coped with being a fish out of water by taking refuge in her imagination. She discovered drama and plays at school, Queen Marys High School in Walsall.

When she was 13 years old she visited Stratford-upon-Avon for the first time, with her grandfather. It was such a thrill seeing Shakespeares world: his house, his school, and, of course, the theatre. We saw Comedy of Errors, and I recall feeling incredibly privileged seeing Shakespeare performed in Stratford-upon-Avon. The passion and the life that came from the stage . . ..

Syals own passion and life for the stage was fostered during her time at Manchester University, where she read Drama and English. Acting and writing really gave me a sense of belonging, she says. Acting and writing also shaped her creative and professional destiny, and led her to many notable successes. Particularly that of portraying Ummi, Sanjeevs grandmother, in hit television show, The Kumars at No. 42, which won an International Emmy award in 2002.

Syal rose to prominence as one of the ensemble that created Goodness Gracious Me, a comedy sketch show that started on Radio 4 in 1996 before moving to television in 1998. The show explored the conflicts and connections between traditional Indian culture and modern British life a key aspect of Syals artistic life ever since, including her current work on Shakespeare and Much Ado About Nothing.

For this current revival of Shakespeares comedic battle of the sexes, director Iqbal Khan has created a vibrant and colourful production that transposes Shakespeares tale of love and deceit to an Indian Bollywood setting. This cultural shift is an apt adjustment according to Syal: The themes of the play truly resonate with traditional Indian culture, and fitting the story with modern India makes sense.

The play expresses a communal, older society mind-set, and presents two very different views of love. There is the arranged marriage of Hero and Claudio, which is contrasted sharply with the love-by-choice relationship of Beatrice and Benedick. These two, jaded, lovebirds are destined for each other from the beginning and everyone knows it, but unlike Hero and Claudio, the choice has to be theirs.

Much Ado About Nothing will be Syals first attempt at Shakespeare, and she is both excited and terrified at the prospect. It will be a true trial by fire, with the weight of tradition bearing down, but, thankfully, every Beatrice is different, she says.

Syal feels fortunate that her Shakespeare debut is playing a role she adores: Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and certainly, my favourite of his comedies. Having this opportunity is very humbling.

When shes not treading the boards, Syal hopes to have time to enjoy Stratford-upon-Avon, and the countryside that Shakespeare undoubtedly loved. It is so clear from his writings that Shakespeare loved the Warwickshire countryside. Its there in his poetry, his Stratford-upon-Avon roots run deep. Though she doubts she will have much time to spend away from the production, she has plans already in mind to visit Warwick Castle and Royal Leamington Spa.

J. Dover Wilson, the great Victorian scholar, summed up Beatrice most eloquently by saying: Beatrice not only has a brain, but delights in the constant employment of it. Like so many of the great actresses before her, Meera Syal seems a natural choice to play this
clever, quick-witted and much-adored character.

Much Ado About Nothing runs until 15 September at The Courtyard Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company

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