Gielgud Theatre, London

Sule Rimi interview: 'Sweat gives context as to why some people voted for Trump or Brexit'

Sule Rimi

Sule Rimi has been a very busy man recently. Over the last year, he's appeared in Measure for Measure and Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, The American Clock and All My Sons at the Old Vic, and he's just returned to Sweat as it transfers to the West End's Gielgud Theatre

In the play, Rimi plays 'take-no-shit' councillor Evan, who he describes as "a very good man who's seen it all before". Despite having a relatively short amount of time to make an impact, the actor says he is enjoying the challenge of "not speaking to any one person who comes through is the door in the same manner, because everyone has their own baggage and way of communicating".

As he geared up to return to Lynn Nottage's play, we caught up with Rimi to talk about how this American play is going to resonate with a West End audience, why we're turning to American classics at the moment, and how he decided to ditch his lawyer career to take a chance on acting. 

You have been very, very busy on stage recently. When are you planning on taking a holiday?! 

That's a question I've been asking my agent a lot. But I don't want to rest because I'm very worried about being an unemployed actor and being out of the loop on things!

Do you like being this busy to constantly, because it must take its toll? 

I'm very keen to do some screen work because it's not so much standing on your feet and shouting. I feel it in my body a bit more as the year goes on.

A lot of the work must be overlapping too, you must be rehearsing one play and then going to perform in another?

It’s been like that since July. It's been a weird run of finishing the last few weeks of one play and rehearsing the next one. It's not an uncommon thing to happen, but it's uncommon to happen so consistently for a long period. It will be a well-deserved break after Sweat, but having said that, the job of a lifetime might come up so I'm not going to jinx it.

I've been a little obsessed by the mini Arthur Miller season in London with All My Sons, The American Clock, Death of a Salesman and The Price all running in the first six months of the year. But you've been in two of them, so why do you think we're turning to American classics like these so much right now?

Thematically, his plays still have this relevance. It's crazy that the main premise of All My Sons, which is based on a true story that Miller read in a newspaper, is still relevant today because we're living in a time when planes are dropping out of the sky. It's the same with The American Clock, how the cycle of capitalism affects the common man. There's a real element of everyday common man life and that's something that's not going to change.

That's essentially what Sweat is about too, isn't it? Lynn wrote the play after spending time in one of the poorest cities in America...

This is something Lynn Nottage shares with Miller in that she was able to talk about her own experiences. She spent time in Reading, Pennsylvania and lived amongst the people there. She saw what effect the deindustrialisation of these cities was having on the economies and the common man. It's this small community of friends and family, and it shows how the gradual deindustrialisation of this steel mill city was influencing the community. It's just a screenshot of what's happening in this community and you can imagine what is happening in so many other communities not just in America, but you have direct correlations to the industrial cities in the UK: Manchester, Leeds or in Wales.

How is it going to resonate with the people sat in the audience, because typically, the people who live in these towns aren't the people who go to West End plays? 

There was an American audience member who put it really well: "This is a really good play for the people who live in the coastal parts of America to learn what's going on in the middle parts". They’ll take away from it is an understanding of why there was a recent shift in political thinking. It might have been bubbling under the surface for years, but this play begins to explain why people are making the extreme decisions they're making. It offers context to why people are voting the way they're voting, whether it's for Brexit, Trump, or right-leaning parties. 

Sule Rimi
Sule Rimi and Osy Ikhile in Sweat
Photo credit Johan Persson

Despite your current unstoppable run of West End roles, you actually studied to be a lawyer didn't you?

I did, to keep the parents happy really. I graduated, and as if that wasn't enough, I did a post-grad too.

How far through your lawyer training were you before you turned your back on it?

I went into conveyancing law and I was sat behind a desk punching the buttons on a computer for around 18 months. I never really felt settled, and it was just a moment of literally saying out loud "What am I doing?" The next lunchtime walking out into the big open world of acting not really having a clue how I was going to achieve it. I jumped in eyes closed, not really thinking about it and hoping my feet would touch the bottom. 

You're a rare example of a modern theatre actor who hasn't had any formal training. 

Yeah, that's not necessarily the best way of going about it. I didn't have a clue about how difficult it was to get into the business. I thought it was just like any other freelance job. My agent very quickly told me that's not how it works.

If there was a young lawyer with acting dreams, would you recommend they took the plunge? 

I'd say: 'If you wanna be rich, stick to the law, but if you want to be happy, follow your dreams' If that's your instinct and you truly love it, just go for it. There's no excuse because the only alternative is to carry on wondering if it could have ever been, and that's not a good place to be. 

Sweat is at the Gielgud Theatre until 20th July. 

Sweat tickets are available now. 

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