From Brum to Broadway: Actress and playwright LOLITA CHAKRABARTI has the midas touch, turning ‘unstageable’ novels like The Life of Pi into pure theatre gold. She opens up about Tony Awards, rave reviews and her split from husband Adrian Lester
- Lolita Chakrabarti was born in Hull and raised in Birmingham
- READ MORE: Shakespeare, his clairvoyant wife and the tragedy of their lost son: GEORGINA BROWN reviews Hamnet
For years I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that Lolita Chakrabarti is the most original and interesting British playwright working today. Having trained at Rada and made a solid career as a TV and stage actress for three decades (most recently in Vigil and The Wheel of Time), she’d penned a couple of plays that were critical hits. Then she hit gold with her ‘impossible’ adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller Life of Pi.
The show, which featured a lifesize puppet tiger, won five Olivier awards including Best New Play in 2022, before going on to rack up three Tony awards in New York.
She followed this with another ‘unstageable’ novel, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, about Anne Hathaway, her passionate relationship with the young William Shakespeare and how the death of their son inspired his greatest work. Erica Whyman’s production in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company was described as ‘pure theatre gold’ by The Mail on Sunday and ‘unbearably moving’ by the Daily Mail.
Its transfer to London’s West End was secured.
And so here is Chakrabarti, on the balcony of the Garrick Theatre, where Hamnet is on for a limited run. The 54-year-old is dressed in the standard rehearsal-room uniform of trainers and loose athleisure. However, the red buses thundering up Charing Cross Road threaten to drown out her low, measured voice, so we pick our way by iPhone torch through the darkened theatre to a side room full of chairs. She’s friendly and open when
Chakrabarti was born in Hull and raised in Birmingham as the younger daughter of Bengali Hindu parents: her father, now in his 90s, is an orthopaedic surgeon; her mother, who died in 2016, was a housewife
I ask if it was childishly exciting to see her play on Broadway (‘yes, yes, yes!’), but also serious and patient: the success of her first play, Red Velvet, was years in the making.
The roots of her tenacity and talent lie in her background. Chakrabarti was born in Hull and raised in Birmingham as the younger daughter of Bengali Hindu parents: her father, now in his 90s, is an orthopaedic surgeon; her mother, who died in 2016, was a housewife. Her father gave her an anglicised version of the Hindu goddess Lalita’s name, unaware it also belonged to the titular 12-year-old seduced by a paedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel. ‘He hadn’t read the book,’ she says. ‘I got a lot of comments from older men in positions of authority, like doctors, when I was young. But now I’m older it’s a great name, especially as an actress, because people don’t forget it.’
The family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for 18 months when Chakrabarti was ten. She remembers bartering sticks of chewing gum with local children, human-sized multi-armed statues being submerged in the Ganges during the Durga Puja festival and the paint fights of Holi. Then it was back to the Midlands so her sister could sit her A-levels. ‘I had a broad Birmingham accent, then a hybrid Birmingham-Indian accent, then it all flattened out,’ she says.
Her sister is the BBC newsreader Reeta Chakrabarti. ‘My dad would have loved one of us to be a doctor, but we weren’t driven that way,’ Chakrabarti says. Instead, she caught the acting bug from her convent-school drama teacher, Maureen Stack. ‘Bleach blonde, beautiful figure, fabulous frocks and stilettos – among all these nuns,’ says Chakrabarti. ‘We had our arguments because she was very Catholic and very Tory, but in terms of drama she took me in hand and said: do this, you are good at this.’
She first clapped eyes on another figure who would be a big influence in her life when she was 13. Chakrabarti was sent to review a play for her school drama class: it starred a handsome, talented 14-year-old Brummie of Jamaican descent, Adrian Lester. When she went to Rada to study drama at 18, he was there, too. They became a couple almost immediately, married in 1997 and formed an apparently perfect partnership, balancing acting careers with raising two daughters.
His was the glitzier arc, embracing award-winning stage parts, small-screen stardom in Hustle, and roles in films from Primary Colors to Mary Queen of Scots. She enjoyed a solid career in Shakespeare, and in new plays on stage and on radio. She was also a dependable presence in countless television dramas.
Her writing career seemed to grow out of their relationship, too. Her first play, Red Velvet, starred Lester as the little-known 19th-century black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. After seven years in development, it progressed from the London fringe to the West End to New York and Canada. Under lockdown, she wrote another play, Hymn, again for her husband as well as their friend Danny Sapani. It was broadcast online by the Almeida and proved so popular it was brought back for a live audience.
I’ve interviewed Chakrabarti and Lester separately before and seen them together at the theatre countless times, so I ask how he is. ‘We are going through a divorce,’ she says. ‘I met Adrian when I was 18 and we’ve been together for 35 years, but life throws you a curveball and you have to adapt to it. Work-wise, the past two years have been extraordinary but challenging because this has been going on underneath.’
Chakrabarti’s award-winning Life of Pi. Life of Pi is currently touring the UK, tickets at lifeofpionstage.com
She would rather not go into the details of what happened, but says, ‘We are managing it as well as we can. I feel like I’ve joined a club that I wouldn’t want to be part of. I’m through most of it now, which is a relief because it’s been hard. But the support and love of my friends, my girls and my dad have been amazing, so I feel quite lucky.’
The last time I interviewed Lester he suggested their daughters’ generation had moved beyond the prejudices he and Chakrabarti faced growing up in the Midlands in the 70s and 80s and forging careers in the 90s. Lila, known as Li, is 22 and worked as an NHS lab assistant during lockdown; Jasmine, 19, is at university and wants to follow her parents into acting.
‘They are a more ferocious generation – they question things and demand accountability,’ says Chakrabarti. ‘But do they have an easier time of it? I think no, not at all. Racism, sexism, all the ‘isms’ regenerate into new forms. It might be more subtle than we knew, but it is still there. But they face it, which is excellent, and they teach me, which is also great.’
Chakrabarti says theatre has come a long way since she wrote an article about her love/hate relationship with it in 2014; its thrills and its fustiness, its lack of diversity and its expense. ‘It’s changed exponentially since then, in terms of who’s running theatres, more women on stage and more voices writing.’
It’s certainly come a long way since she left Rada. Then the parts she was offered were ‘limited because I was of Asian descent and also female. Now you see Shakespeare plays and they mix it up and there are all kinds of people playing everything, but then it was two women, if you were lucky, and 13 men.’
On TV, Chakrabarti initially played peripheral authority figures (she jokes that she’s now only progressed to slightly more central authority figures). She worked regularly but was frustrated and bored, which is what led her to writing. ‘I did a pottery class and a Romantic poetry class, and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to sustain me for 40 years. Let’s see if I can tell a story…’
Chakrabarti says she felt a rush of pride when Rishi Sunak became the first UK Prime Minister of South Asian extraction, although she isn’t a fan of his policies. And she had no qualms when, in 2022, she accepted an OBE for services to drama from Princess Anne at Windsor Castle.
‘I understand it’s a difficult choice for some, but I looked at it as an acknowledgment of my work and accepted it as that. It was a really lovely occasion – there were still some Covid restrictions in place, but being in a room with so many different people from so many varied walks of life, being recognised for their achievements, is a humbling thing.’
And so back to Hamnet and further recognition. Anne Hathaway is routinely dismissed as a comic footnote to the story of her genius husband, ‘this illiterate old woman who he left his second-best bed to’ in his will. That’s not how Chakrabarti sees her. ‘What makes genius is struggle, suffering and difficulty, but it’s the people in your life that inform it,’ says Chakrabarti. ‘You don’t travel alone.’
Hamnet is at London’s Garrick Theatre until 17 February, tickets at nimaxtheatres.com. Life of Pi is currently touring the UK, tickets at lifeofpionstage.com
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