A Tale of Two Cities: Shanaya Rafaat on playing Lucie Manette

A Tale of Two Cities: Shanaya Rafaat on playing Lucie Manette

12 October 2016

by Rebecca Marano

Interview: “So that is what I love about this part; that she does go on a journey, that she does change, that she’s different from when she started.” Rebecca talks to Shanaya Rafaat about the acting business, Dickensian women and manoeuvring stairs in Victorian dresses.

Shanaya Rafaat as Lucie ManetteShanaya Rafaat as Lucie Manette with her onstage father Patrick Romer who plays Doctor Alexandre Manette 

I came to see the show on Tuesday. It was very good, I really enjoyed it. I loved your performance as Lucie Manette. How are you finding the tour so far?
I've really enjoyed the tour so far. It's a treat to be working with such a lovely cast. They're all very talented, warm and generous so it’s been so easy and fun to travel and work with them. And I really enjoy playing the different theatres — we were recently in Richmond which is a more intimate space whereas the Bradford Alhambra is so much bigger. We have to constantly adapt our performances to each venue which helps keep it fresh and also having a different community ensemble every week keeps us on our toes!


So when did you first decide to go into acting?
I started acting sort of as a hobby when I was at university because I read English when I lived in Bombay. And then somebody from a professional theatre company saw me in a college play and cast me in their show. I worked with them for three or four years and when it came for me to decide what I was going to do, I realised I never wanted to stop acting. So I acted professionally for a while in Bombay and then auditioned for RADA and came to London.


Shanaya in the rehearsal room for A Tale of Two Cities

What kind of professional training did you undergo to become an actor?
Because I worked for at least seven years before I went to drama school —  and I went to drama school when I was twenty-five so pretty late —  I’d already had a lot of training. I think I learnt a lot on the job. But then I felt like there were things that I couldn’t do and I just wanted to get better and so I auditioned for drama school.


Which school did you go to?
I went to RADA which was one of the best experiences I've ever had. Joseph Timms who plays Carton, was two years above me  and I thought he was great so I'm so pleased to be playing opposite him in this show. 


So I know you’ve had roles on film, television and stage. How do the processes differ?
I haven’t actually done that much screen work. I’ve done some but I feel like I can’t really talk with much experience about that. What I can say about theatre is that I find it very exciting being on stage because everybody’s there and it’s all live and there are no retakes. I’m sure a lot of actors say that about theatre and that’s why they love it. You feel that rush when you do it.

I think film is a very different animal and I’m still coming to grips with it. I find it very challenging because of all the waiting and the artificial circumstances around you. You can see the camera and things like that. I’m still learning but it’s a nice challenge. I’m still trying to find my way into becoming more natural on film.


Would it be something that you’d actively want to peruse?
I am. I definitely have been and I’ve been auditioning for things and doing little bits for TV which I’ve really enjoyed. As I say it’s a very new thing for me still, so that’s the lovely challenge about it, trying to figure it out. Because even your drama training is focused on theatre there’s not much camera work so I find camera work still quite mysterious and exciting and something I still have to wrap my head around properly.


Do you prefer the theatre or working on film?
Right now, I’d have to say theatre because I know it better. But as I’ve said, because I find film challenging and new, I’d like to do more film and television. For sure.


What inspired you to audition for the role of Lucie Manette?
Actually, with auditions, we don’t get to pick and necessarily choose what we’re auditioning for. My agent sends me out on auditions. If there are roles that I like and would like to go out for it, I tell them and they try and get me seen for them. I happened to do Great Expectations, which is another Charles Dickens play, earlier this year and it was the same casting director, Ginny Schiller, who’s very loyal to the actors she selects for auditions. I think she just thought “Shanaya did a Dickens this year, she could probably do Dickens again” and so she sent me up for it.

It’s really fun to play this part. I wasn’t sure I’d get it because it’s so different from the last part I played, and indeed the parts I’ve played before this. I’ve done Regan in King Lear, who’s a sort of manipulative, not a very nice character, and Estella who’s a heartless character, so it’s really nice to play somebody who’s compassionate and just good.


What do you love and hate about the role of Lucie?
You know, when I first read the book and read the script, the thing that I didn’t like very much about her was that I felt, on first reading, that she was just oh so good and kind. I feel like with the women in Dickens, things happen to them and they don’t do things. The men are always doing things and things are always happening to the women. They’re not really directing the story in any kind of strong way.

The more I’ve done it and the more we rehearsed, I’ve uncovered things. James Dacre — the director — was so open about finding each character’s journey, from where they start, where they could be insecure and unsure and immature, to the point where they find strength and become stronger and can finally face the tragedy that is happening to them. I think that’s there in my playing of it. That she starts out na├»ve and then finds the strength to stand up for her husband, to stand up for herself. So that is what I love about this part; that she does go on a journey, that she does change, that she’s different from when she started. I don’t think I hate anything about her anymore! And she has very nice costumes.


I saw them on my backstage tour and they looked so painful!
They are a little bit painful but you know, you get used to the corset. I always complain, “how do these women wear these corsets and everything?” But once you have them on, you just get used to them. What I haven’t figured out yet is how to climb up stairs with those skirts and be graceful about it. I would love to watch a quick YouTube video on how to climb up stairs in an eighteenth century dress.


I couldn’t wear them, definitely not! Your last point was really interesting because at first, I wasn’t too keen on Lucie as a character, just from a modern perspective. So when I did some research, I saw that Lucie is a character often criticised for being two-dimensional. However, when I watched your performance, I really thought you’d bought her to life. Did you find it challenging bringing her to life to this production?
I think in the novel she is kind of two dimensional. In every scene she has her eyes filled with tears and, as I say, things happen to her. But Mike Poulton, who adapted the novel into the play that we're performing, and the director, were so keen to present a three-dimensional character. Mike’s picked lines from the book and written lines for her that show her vulnerability but also show her strength. So we don’t dwell too much on showing her vulnerability and we allow her to change. I think James’ direction has also helped me and encouraged me to look for places where she can grow to be more than just the lines on the page.



Shanaya as Lucie Manette, protected by Miss Pross played by Sue Wallace

I think you did a really good job of that as I honestly really disliked her before your performance.
Well, it was tricky in the eighteenth century to be a strong woman given those circumstances. You were just thought of as a strident and unpleasant and not lady like. I think given those constraints, she does try; she goes to court, she stands up for the man she loves, she stands up for her father. Even the dialogue she has with the men she’s always encouraging them to be better versions of themselves instead of just going “oh ok, I accept you as you are father, that’s absolutely fine”. No she challenges her father, she challenges her husband, she challenges Carton. And those are lines that are actually there in the book. I think that Mike has just picked them up and shone a brighter light on them.


Can you relate to the character in any way?
I think every time you’re doing a role, you always try and find the things that are similar to you. I think that I’m certainly more, dynamic, I hope, as a person than she is. I’m older than her, I’m about ten years older than her so I think I’m more mature as a person than she is. But I think there are things about her that I’m like, or that I’d like to think I am. That she’s so honest, that she is compassionate, that she cares about people, that she fights for the people she loves. I think that I relate to because I adore my family and my friends and I believe that I would show that kind of strength in adversity on their behalf.


I really enjoyed the sweet relationship between Lucie and Miss Pross. So I was just wondering how you and Sue Wallace decided how you were going to portray that relationship?
The thing is, Sue and I never really had to decide on too much because we get along really well. We just do. I have more stage time with Sue than any other actor and we have a laugh in the wings and it’s just very comfortable. She’s feisty and funny and so interesting. In fact, we're living together right now in Bradford — it’s the Pross and Lucie ladies apartment! We have such a good time together so I think that just translated.

I always joke that I’m her personal prop because every time we’re together she constantly has to drag Lucie on, encourage her, move Lucie here, move Lucie there, help her up, help her here. I always say “you have to carry the two bags and I’m your third piece of baggage basically.” It was really easy because we get along so well and I think that’s really important because they are meant to get along and be a unit. I feel like Sue and I are a bit of unit. I wrote in a card that I made for her, “we’re the dynamic duo, we’re like Batman and Robin, Thelma and Louise.”


Besides yourself, which actor in this production is going to blow people away?
I wouldn’t include myself, and I’m not being modest here, in the blow away category. I think of it really very much as an ensemble piece. I think everybody is such an important piece of the machine.

We are all very proud of Joseph Timms who plays Carton because he has these wonderful moments, especially the scene at the end with the beautiful Rebecca Birch, the seamstress and him. That’s a beautiful moment. If you want a moment that would blow you away, I’d say that will be it. The last moment. The two of them together are so luminous. It always, always tears me up. It’s just beautiful. But I think otherwise it is very much an ensemble piece and everybody takes on part of telling the story at different points and has memorable performances.

Shanaya Rafaat as Lucie Manette and Joseph Timms as Carton

Shanaya and Joseph Timms who plays Carton

Lastly, if you could play any role, your dream role, what would it be?
At present. My dream role keeps changing. In fact, we just went to the Bronte Parsonage and on the way back we were playing what would be your dream role. I think right now my dream role would be Beatrice. I auditioned to play Beatrice recently, a few months ago and didn’t get it but I would really like to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I feel like I’m ready for it. I love Shakespeare and I love the lines she has. She’s such a wonderful, strong, complicated character — I’d love to play her.


A Tale of Two Cities opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it plays from 10 to 17 September 2016. It then tours to Oxford Playhouse, Richmond Theatre, Bradford Alhambra, Blackpool Grand, Wolverhampton Grand, Brighton Theatre Royal, Edinburgh King's, Cheltenham Everyman and Nottingham Theatre Royal. 

Get tickets for this show by visiting our tour page.