By: SARWAR ALAM
ACTOR Tony Jayawardena said memories of his late mother helped him connect with his role in the upcoming play Marjorie Prime, which explores how people deal with the grief of losing a loved one.
Set in the year 2062, the play tells the story of Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman suffering from dementia, whose memories are stored and replayed to her by an artificial intelligent service called Prime. It appears to her as a hologram of a younger version of her husband, who had died 15 years earlier.
Jayawardena plays Marjorie’s son-in-law Jon, who recommends the service to his family, believing it will help them with the grieving process.
“It’s different for different actors, but for me personally, I always start by trying to find a point of commonality between me and the character, and kind of grow it from there,” the 44-year-old told Eastern Eye.
“With this (Marjorie Prime), it was really easy. About seven years ago, my mother passed away, which was certainly the biggest death I’ve had in my family and my personal life. It affected me hugely.
“Dealing with people who have died and bringing them back in holographic form immediately makes me think about my mother and how I dealt with her death, the feelings it brought up, and what these characters might be going through in terms of dealing with their departed [loved ones]. It gives me a little bit of insight.”
Based on Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-shortlisted 2014 novel, Marjorie Prime is an emotional story that explores identity and whether artificial intelligence is a possible substitute for human emotion.
Jayawardena said, “The thing that hit me first is that it’s almost a study on grief. Anyone who’s lost somebody they care about – whether it’s a partner, a parent or a sibling – imagine if you had the chance to bring them back in some form, but it wasn’t them.
“I think that’s a really difficult possibility to be faced with. Would you want that? Would you want something that looks and sounds exactly like the person you loved, but clearly isn’t the person you loved? Would that be torture? Or would that be a comfort? I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but they’re really interesting questions to ask.”
Jayawardena admitted that one of the challenges performing the role would be to not burn himself out.
“The character I’m playing has to go through quite a tragic loss. To be able to do that every single day, to make sure it doesn’t tire me or leave me emotionally exhausted, will be challenging” he said.
Jayawardena has been an actor for almost 20 years, starring in plays such as The Father and The Assassin, East Is East, and Bend It Like Beckham as well as in TV shows The Crown, Avoidance and Ackley Bridge.
His life experiences, rather than his acting ability, helped him get under the skin of his character in Marjorie Prime, he said.
“Life experiences help because think about some of the things (the play deals with) – the more you live, the more you experience, then the less of a surprise these things are,” he said.
“People in this play are dealing with loss of family members. Before my mother died, I would have found it harder to understand what somebody was going through after the loss of a parent.
“The experiences I’ve had have made me a better human being. And part of that has also made me a better actor.”
While it deals with a serious theme, Jayawardena said the play also has humour and lighter moments, something the actors tried to incorporate during rehearsals.
“There’s a lot of flirting, the odd innuendo. It’s dealing with very heavy subjects, but doing it in a very human way,” he said.
“It’s been fun in the rehearsal room where we exchanged stories – humorous tales, life-affirming stories, that have helped give life to this play.
“Sometimes, talking about life can help you deal with the subject of death.”
Marjorie Prime was turned into a film in 2017, starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith and Oscar winner Tim Robbins, who played Jon.
Jayawardena said he decided against watching the film as he wanted to bring his own take to the character.
“This varies from actor to actor, but I try not watch any version of something I am doing because I won’t be able to come to it fresh. I don’t want to try to do an impression of something someone else has done before. It makes it less real. I just try and be the character and live in the moment of that character without being influenced by what anyone else has done beforehand.”
Marjorie Prime is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London until May 6. After that, Jayawardena will go back to playing the father of Nathuram Godse (who killed Indian freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948) in the critically acclaimed play The Father and The Assassin at the National Theatre.
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham and written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, it is one of the few south Asian stories commissioned by the National.
“I think we all realised the opportunity was special. Having an all-south Asian cast on the Olivier stage at the National is not something that happens often. It was also the first time, I believe, that a female south Asian writer has ever had her new writing on the Olivier stage,” Jayawardena said.
“Having read the play and then worked on it, we believed it was a powerful piece of work, dealing with an important part of history. Whether you are south Asian or British, it doesn’t matter, it’s an important part of world history. We knew it was an important, brilliant story to tell. And that made us all work hard on it and be very proud of it.”
Asked if roles such as his in Marjorie Prime, where he plays a non-south Asian character, is a sign of progress in diversity in theatre, Jayawardena said: “When it comes to progress, I don’t know. I’m standing on the shoulders of a whole bunch of brilliant Asian actors who have come before me and broken down doors – the likes of Art Malik, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal are in a better position to talk about progress.
“Hopefully I can do some good work which will continue to help people look at south Asian actors for a variety of roles, whether they are written for south Asians or not.”
Jayawardena recently landed a role in The Crown – a show not known for its diverse cast. “In The Crown, there have not been many roles for people of colour. But in this particular instance, the head of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Rampal (Commonwealth secretary-general from 1975-1990), even though he was Guyanese, his family was originally from India. So, there was a chance for a south Asian actor and I got the job.
“The Crown is one of those shows that has a worldwide audience. You don’t get a lot of chances to do programmes like that. I had relatives in Sri Lanka calling me up, going, ‘oh my God, you’re in The Crown’, so that was really nice,” he said.