Wednesday 21 March 2018

Homing in on Simpson no job for amateurs

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

ONE of the eternal laws of press interviews is that the preciousness of the interviewee is usually directly proportional to their fame. The likes of Madonna or Annie Lennox try to veto certain topics before you even hit the record button. Their PR people will not give you a minute longer than scheduled.

They can insist that the room in which they are interviewed be decked out with freshly cut flowers and that the mineral water with which they will moisten their lips between thoughts be flown in from France. They can shamelessly ram the conversation round to the marketing effort. But they can get away with that kind of thing. They're stars.

Christopher Simpson is not a star yet. The handsome part-Rwandan, part-Irish actor has had a part in a television adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth and is appearing in Conall Morrison's upcoming play at the Abbey, The Bacchae of Baghdad, an updated version of Euripides's The Bacchae. With his delicate multi-ethnic features and burgeoning talent the young actor could be well on his way to interview rooms full of fresh flowers and designer water. As of now, however, Simpson seems to be in question-vetoing mode without actually having graduated to stardom.

I am told he prefers "Christopher" to "Chris", actually. An innocuous question about what his father was doing in Rwanda when he met his mother is greeted with a theatrical look of horror. "I'm not that comfortable talking about all of that. You want my dad's CV? You'll have to ask him yourself. Does that make sense?"

I'm in the middle of trying to explain that it might be interesting for people to also learn a little bit about his background, but he's still not sure. I don't really care what his father does but, by now, I am truly intrigued.

I've hit upon something interesting. Was his father a gun-smuggler? An arms dealer? A millionaire playboy? Surely this veil of secrecy must be concealing something very exciting indeed.

"OK, he was training to be a teacher," Chris, sorry Christopher, tells me with a withering look. I try to conceal my disappointment that his father is not James Bond. I can tell this is going to be like pulling teeth.

I try to ease him back into the one-on-one with a few softball questions. He tells me he used to be in an amateur dramatics club, really up for professionally demanding situations, and finds it incredible to be part of The Bacchae of Baghdad, a play "that is so current and contemporary".

"The territory of this play is very much about the battle of ideologies, and that just seems appropriate right now given recent events. So much of what we do can be frippery." He is verbose on his new project but he doesn't seem able to talk in anything but the vaguest terms about his life. Having moved to London as a child he speaks in a very upper-crust English accent. He played an "angry young youth" (sic) in the adaptation of White Teeth. Was he ever an "angry young youth" himself?

'OH, I'm sure I must have been. I'm trying to think 'No, not really', well, there have been times people may have been abusive, so yeah."

When I ask him whether he encountered racism while at school in England, he says: "I don't think any country has a monopoly on racism. My recollection of school is lots of things and for sure, people will look to what is different," and leaves it at that. I nearly leap for joy when he speaks about visiting Rwanda with his mother as a child, as this represents a quantum leap of frankness compared to the generalities he has been using up to now.

"It is a beautiful country," he says. "Our mum gave us phrases in Rwandan so we could order things. We were on the hillside, by a brook. It was the first time I had avocado cut from a tree."

He tells me he was "touched and saddened" by the massacres there.

Did he have relatives who died in the war?

"Inevitably if you have any relatives in Rwanda, you know of people who died."

What age was his mother when he left Rwanda? He doesn't know. It must have been difficult for her to cope, knowing the situation in her homeland?

"One has to live one's life no matter how tragic the circumstances of it are."

He tells me his mother has since died but doesn't feel he wants to say how she died. He tosses his hair and stares out the window. More silence.

He has gleefully bored me back into talking about his career and waits out the final few minutes of the interview with a monologue on "the travesty of the colonial and imperial imperative to divide and rule".

I have lost the will to interrupt him. I have the feeling that even if I tied him to the chair, he still wouldn't let me know what those dark eyes have really seen.

Obviously I haven't yet had a chance to assess Christopher's performance in The Bacchae of Baghdad- by all accounts both he and the play are well worth seeing - but the interview was a pretty unforgettable performance.

"Well, I'll say one thing for him," the photographer says by way of consolation, "he certainly knew how to work the camera." But then the biggest divas always do.

Christopher Simpson will appear in Conall Morrison's 'The Bacchae of Baghdad' at the Abbey Theatre. Opens March 8. Previews March 4, 6 and 7. Tel: (01) 878-7222

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