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Interview: Actor Suzanne Ahmet on playing Blanca the Jewish woman

Ahead of The Telling's performance of Into the Melting Pot at Liverpool Early Music Festival on 22nd September, actor Suzanne Ahmet provided an insight into what it's like playing Blanca, a Jewish woman in 1492 Seville as the deadline for the expulsion of the Jews looms.

How do you find working with The Telling and how does it compare to what you’ve done before? The level of detail that goes into creating a piece with The Telling is perhaps the most challenging and exciting element of the work. There are 6 of us (5 musicians and 1 actor), weaving the story on stage, along with Nick Renton who conducts the piece, via his role as director, from off stage. When Nick, Clare and I began our journey back in January, I found rehearsals to be a constant source of discovery, finding new meanings in the text each time we met. And when the musicians arrived – everything was taken to a whole new level!

Into the Melting Pot touches on some hard-hitting truths about racial intolerance in the late 1400s which are sadly still relevant today. How does it feel to be sharing such an important message? It is a privilege to be recounting a story that is so closely linked to a complex and deeply troubling part of history. I feel a sense of responsibility from everyone that we tread carefully. We are trying to depict real events through the eyes of a fictional character. The way in which Clare Norburn (writer/soprano) interweaves Blanca’s story and imagination with historic fact, hopefully, brings the world of Medieval Spain to life in a tangible and accessible way.

Nick (director) favours an honest and delicate approach, depicting our heroine, Blanca, with a light touch and sense of innocence. She is an ordinary, uneducated, working-class widow. Her intellect is instinctual, natural: she listens to those around her, hears their speech and turns of phrase, music and storytelling and absorbs it like her own personal playlist. The different languages and cultures alive in her neighbourhood and throughout Spanish history light her up. She is part of a glorious diversity, which moves her to dance, laugh, sing, debate and question.

However, this enjoyment and outlet happen in private. She is aware of her place as a Jewish widow in a Catholic country whose leaders feel increasingly threatened by 'difference'. And so, each night, alone in her workroom, she tunes into voices of women from the past, who share their stories, as she sits at her spinning wheel – her own special kind of 'telepathy'. 

How painful it is then when in her lifetime, she must watch her beloved Seville be stripped, divided and violated due to the destructive forces of The Inquisition. It is startling to acknowledge that we are still living with different shades of the same situation, today. We could be talking about Nations all over the world that suffer and struggle in similar ways, 600 years on.

Into the Melting Pot has a fun side too, of course! What do you enjoy most about playing Blanca, the Jewish woman? Blanca, like her creator, Clare Norburn, is remarkable. Even in her darkest hour, life and passion pulse through her veins. I think my favourite thing about Clare’s writing is that her characters are never ‘dumbed down’. She never gives in to stereotype. No matter what the character's academic background, she will have an immense capacity to communicate. Blanca relishes language and music. She can express, question, struggle, joke and have a fierce knowledge of history, despite her class or social status. Through her, we witness the human capacity to overcome exceptional odds and hold on to one's heart and hope.

You have played a wide range of theatre roles in the past as well as some on-screen, how does Blanca compare to your previous roles? The previous interview with Anna Demetriou encapsulates beautifully a feeling of sincere gratitude. We are aware of how lucky we are when a company as unique and textured as The Telling asks you to join their ensemble. It’s a privilege. I am lucky enough to feel that way about several companies I’ve worked with, for both stage and screen. When you are part of a team making work that you love and respect, you bounce out of bed each morning with a purpose and for that I am truly grateful.

How do you find performing to a live soundtrack? The musicians: Clare, Ariane, Joy, Giles and Fatima are exceptional. When they joined rehearsals, everything made sense. They create the most exquisite world and they each tell a unique part of the story individually and as an orchestra. It is magic to be with them.

Why should people come and see Into the Melting Pot? It is a piece for everyone. Be it academia, music, art, history or personal accounts that draw your attention, there will be something for you. And if, like our heroine, you celebrate difference and diversity, there is a seat and a story waiting…

Suzanne and The Telling will perform Into the Melting Pot on Sunday 22nd September, 7.30pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church for Liverpool Early Music Festival.


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