Revelations: `My mother thought Shakespeare sent me mad'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The time: 1982

The place: Small Heath, Birmingham

The man: David Harewood, actor

I LAUGH when I walk round the National Theatre, where I am playing Othello, and look at the pictures of the famous actors in famous plays - I haven't heard of any of them. I am a fraud: a lark-about, mess-about kid from Birmingham who's touring the world with this great Shakespearean work. I don't know a lot about theatre because I didn't ever really want to be an actor.

Academically, I was never a high-flyer at Washwood Heath comprehensive school, mainly because I was the class clown. I stayed on for sixth form because the opportunities were slim. I was being geared up for factory fodder at the local Lucas or Leyland plant, the alternative was the dole.

I remember being phoned up by my English teacher, Mr Reader, who wanted to have a chat. I had no idea what he wanted. He sat me down and asked the most incredible question: "Have you ever thought of being an actor." He thought I was a very talented entertainer, especially after my class took school assembly and I'd done a speech off the top of my head. Later, I learnt I was about to be thrown out for not doing any work. I had no idea what being an actor entailed, but having no better job plans, I thought I might as well give it a go.

It was so ridiculous because there were no black people on TV and the Black and White Minstrel Show could still have been playing. My mother was cooking dinner, and I said: "I think I'm going to be an actor" and without turning round she replied "mmmh, we'll see." My dad, a long-distance lorry driver, refused to let me do it. West Indian parents are very aware of the need to earn a living. None of the family were theatre people, never even visited one! They were gobsmacked. My brothers laughed and my sister was quite worried because it most probably meant going down to London where you are murdered or end up at Kings Cross selling your bum!

I had an audition for the Birmingham Youth Theatre and, funnily enough, I'd learnt two speeches from Othello. One by Othello himself and the other by Iago - because I couldn't make my mind up which one I wanted to play! I had no idea of the political shenanigans which surround the part. Unfortunately there was no place for me. I wasn't crestfallen, it would just be tougher than I first thought. Three days later I found out about a six-week course at the National Youth Theatre. I had the most brilliant time. There were three other black guys, but two of them completely ignored me. It was the first time I got a taste of what it would be like to be in competition in the business.

Finally, I won a place at RADA, but with no goals, no ambitions, I was just having a laugh. I went home after the first term speaking like Prince Charles and my mother went mad. They wanted me to learn the received pronunciation so I didn't have to play brummies all my life, we were told to keep it up over the holidays - but all I could manage was three days because my mates took the piss.

I came out of drama school and suddenly I was a black actor. My first job was Romeo and I was being asked what it was like to play him and be black. It completely threw me. I was in this no man's land playing parts that were usually white and critics were forever pointing this out.

After two years I ended up having a breakdown. I wasn't going to talk about it publicly but here goes. It sprung from total unhappiness. I'd left a very secure home in Birmingham and found more friends at RADA, but in the business everything was full of politics, egos and envy. People hated me because I was successful and because I was black. I ended up being so miserable that I invented somebody else to be - another character who was an undercover secret agent.Rather than telling them tofuck off I was trying to be different characters for different people - hoping to make everybody like me. I ended up feeling exhausted.

In the last few days before I collapsed, I was incredibly mentally active. Luckily because I'm an entertainer it was not manifesting itself in violence, I was just being very funny. All my mates knew there was something wrong because I was manic, seeing things from strange angles and dressing. Finally I passed out and was rushed to hospital. I nearly ended up in a top security mental institution because I was zipping in and out of different characters and quoting Shakespeare.

Fortunately my friends told them I was an actor and luckily the nurse on duty believed their story. She could have gone tick and I would have been committed.

I was completely out for three days. I don't remember anything, just waking up and seeing all my family round the bed. There were times when I was almost like a vegetable and could only communicate with my eyes; at other times I went berserk which made my parents even more upset. With all the drugs inside me, I started behaving like some mad person. To this day the doctors still don't know what happened to me, my mother was convinced that Shakespeare sent me mad.

When I was given the role of Othello at the National, there were some terrible articles. I have one pinned on my wall, it made me so angry: "Why has it been given to this young unknown black actor, when there are countless white actors who could black up and play the role."

These are the attitudes I would like to confront. It is now ridiculous to see a white person blacked up. White actors find it difficult to key into, coming from so little, to have risen so high and then to be destroyed. Even today I could walk out of this theatre, after playing in one of the most successful Shakespearean productions in the National's history and be on the dole. There is a ceiling for black actors and it is very difficult to have a career.

The world out there for me is still very real and very white. But I know I'll never go back to that hospital again, I've learnt that I'm not the only one. It might seem strange as I'm 32, but what I didn't have before was a grounding in my black consciousness. My preparation and reading for Othello has helped me achieve that. I now have an idea where I fit into the big picture. I still walk into shops and the owners reach for the stock as if I'm going to steal it. These realities I take on stage every night - every night. That's where Othello has helped me, I'm not playing - I'm being

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

Othello is at the National Theatre until the 13th of June.