Adi Tantimedh writes…
Tumanbay, BBC Radio 4's epic historical drama reached episode six, past the midway point of its ten-week run this week.
Things heat up in and out of the palace as threats against the empire loom. There's been an assassination. The spymaster is under pressure to find the traitors. There's a war brewing. Plague is lurking in the shadows.
And out in the wild, an nameless slave has taken a rich teenage girl hostage, escaping from a plague-ridden ship headed for Tumanbay. Played by Akin Gazi with a smoldering leading man intensity, it's quite a feat to convey the anger, fear and coiled violence of a man of few words just on the radio without the aid of his face, body or any images.
Akin Gazi has appeared on TV shows like Skins, Doctor Who, Spooks and a recurring role as the Sultan on the cult hit DaVinci's Demons. Tumanbay is his first radio play, and I interviewed him about acting in radio for the first time. His answers are astonishing for the work that went into it and his process for telling the story with just his voice and emotions.
AT: You play a character with no name, only known as Slave, one of the many sold into the empire of Tumanbay who comes to have a part to play in the intrigues and conflicts. How do you see your character's journey in the series?
Akin Gazi: The journey of the character is revealed beautifully as the story develops so I will tread carefully in an effort not to give away too much. Slave has been deprived of everything, anyone he ever loved, his name and his freedom. He has been whipped and humiliated on the slave ship in addition to witnessing the death of his brothers, perhaps his last surviving family members thrown over board to protect the crew from potential plague. His introduction is climatic, escaping his captors and successfully taking a hostage.
He trusts no one, has nothing left to lose and has one single goal in mind – revenge. The remnants of his humanity are coloured by his interactions with Heaven and as they spend more time together, he reveals piece by piece what happened to him and how he came to be a slave. But what makes their relationship more interesting is in spite of the fact he initially only uses her to escape and even almost kills her, is that they find common ground in their painful losses of loved ones and the struggle to find a place to call home again. In a way you could say Heaven saved his soul!
Slave transforms on his journey towards Tumanbay even if his motivation for going there never changes. The writing is excellent, John Dryden and Mike Walker have painted a beautiful tapestry, a wonderful world for the audience to lose themselves in, to try and work out who to root for as there are no clear heroes or villains. Tumanbay is a nuanced and at times complex piece, which also makes it a joy to play.
You've been in quite a few TV and movies. Is this your first radio play?
Yes this is thankfully my first radio play, I loved the process and the material. Based loosely around the fall of the Mamluk Empire, it afforded me the opportunity to time travel and call on the echo of my ancestors. The Mamluks were slaves, mainly of Turkish origin, fantastic fighters and horseman who eventually became rulers of what is modern day Egypt for hundreds of years before falling to the Ottomans in 1517 via Selim the Grim. I have a passion for history and played Selim's father Bayezid II in Da Vinci's Demons so it's a time period I'm familiar with.
Radio also brings with it more dialogue and material, the thud of 10 episodes dropping through my letter box almost made me choke on my breakfast but I went through it in one sitting, a good sign! I noticed there are many more climaxes and moments of high tension in a radio drama compared to a TV or film script, but essentially the preparation for the role is the same. I tried to find a physicality, as that supports the vocal performance.
This radio production has a somewhat unusual process for the actors, being more physical than just standing in front of a microphone. Can you talk about how you and your fellow actors went about it?
My expectations of the process could not have been any further from what we actually did. I imagined a darkened room in a plush BBC studio with a lectern, the script, a little spotlight. Thankfully I was way off the mark!
We performed the scenes with props, sand pits, costume, in an old beaten up studio full of character and equipment from a time gone by. A single boom mic operator followed us a round the sound proofed space almost like a surfer on the wave of our performances. We had iPads replacing noisy paper scripts with a fully committed hands on performance which I think was genius for a piece like Tumanbay. In my first scene I take Heaven hostage and use her to escape, we performed this almost as you would for a film, full on physical struggle included, this physicality went into everything we performed and Tumanbay has great energy and power as a consequence.
I was worried initially how I would pitch my performance it being a new medium and with only one weapon at my disposal, my voice, but these concerns disappeared as I could focus on the other actors & my motivations. Having the freedom to physically interact with other actors, eat food, drink, handle props gave us real movement and stronger intention instead of being stuck behind a lectern. I felt we were in the world of Tumanbay. I had complete trust in John Dryden to help shape my performance and had great chemistry with Olivia Popica (Heaven) so fingers crossed the audience will live the journey with us.
The team had great positivity and unity, as a consequence we had lots of fun recording. One scene had me dragging a camel through the desert, I suggested the camel should sound like Chewbacca from Star Wars, John Dryden asked me to do my best Chewbacca and in a flash I was voicing the camel (well I'm not sure they used my camel but good fun nonetheless!) We laughed as we needed that lightness before stepping back into the harsh world Slave finds himself in. I loved playing him and hope he finds redemption through the revenge he is seeking.
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