Sope Dirisu: “The world is re-exploring men and masculinity”

Actor Sope Dirisu tells Theo Bosanquet about starring in The Brothers Size, by the writer of Oscar-winning Moonlight, and how social media launched his acting career.

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It’s the 27th birthday of Sope Dirisu, and he has many reasons to celebrate.

The past few years have been incredibly fruitful. He’s become one of theatre’s hottest young stars with roles including Coriolanus for the RSC and Cassius Clay in One Night In Miami at the Donmar Warehouse.

The latter was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is soon to become the Artistic Director of the venue where Dirisu will star in a hotly anticipated revival of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size. But more on Kwei-Armah, and the Young Vic, in a moment.

I ask Dirisu to introduce The Brothers Size for the uninitiated. “It’s easy to undersell how great this play is,” he enthuses. “It explores brotherhood and what that means: the differences and similarities between blood brothers and brothers of experience. It also explores black incarceration, masculinity and love in the specific and broader senses of the word.”

The action focuses on two African-American brothers of Yoruba heritage. Dirisu plays Ogun, the relatively sensible older brother. He reunites with his loose-cannon younger sibling, Oshoosi (played by fellow Young Vic debutant Jonathan Ajayi), after both have had spells in prison.

Jonathan Ajayi, Sope Dirisu and Anthony Welsh in rehearsals for The Brothers Size (Image: Marc Brenner)
Jonathan Ajayi, Sope Dirisu and Anthony Welsh in rehearsals for The Brothers Size (Image: Marc Brenner)

That the play’s primary focus is masculinity is striking at a time when issues of gender disparity and sexual abuse are making headlines daily. But that’s precisely what makes it so pertinent, says Dirisu. “The world is re-exploring men and masculinity at the moment. I think it’s really important to explore and interrogate the questions this play provokes.”

Another draw was the fact that he shares a common heritage with the characters. “Both my parents are Yoruba Nigerians, and I have a Yoruba name,” he says. (Sope, incidentally, is pronounced “sho-pay”.) “That was definitely a selling point – the way Tarell connects that mythology with the characters. If you’re familiar with Yoruba culture there’s an added layer of enjoyment to the play.”

The Brothers Size, which is part of the Brother/Sister Plays trilogy (along with In The Red And Brown Water and Marcus, Or The Secret Of Sweet), premiered at the Young Vic’s Maria Studio in 2007. Its director, Bijan Sheibani, who recently enjoyed success with Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre, returns to take the reins for this revival.

Dirisu says that despite his history with the production, Sheibani has resisted being too “prescriptive” in rehearsals. He compares the process to building a house with the foundations already in place. As for McCraney, whose star has risen sharply in the past year thanks to the Oscar-winning Moonlight, other projects have kept him away from the rehearsal room. But he has remained in touch with the company via Skype.

Dirisu did not see the original staging. In fact, he didn’t see much theatre at all as a kid in north London. “My family didn’t really engage very much with theatre. It’s just not something we would do. Perhaps that’s cultural. But it meant that until I wanted to pursue it as a profession I wasn’t going to the theatre regularly.”

Sope Dirisu and Jonathan Ajayi in rehearsals for The Brothers Size (Image: Marc Brenner)
Sope Dirisu and Jonathan Ajayi in rehearsals for The Brothers Size (Image: Marc Brenner)

He was much more interested in football than footlights until he started getting involved in school drama and subsequently the National Youth Theatre. But his breakthrough arrived while studying economics at Birmingham University. He saw an advert on Facebook for open auditions for the RSC’s Open Stages programme and felt he’d be “an idiot not to go for it”. It proved a good instinct. Before long, he was playing Pericles in Stratford. Talk about the power of social media.

As for the future, Dirisu says that despite ambitions to be in a Marvel film, he’s “happy just to be working”. He names Chiwetel Ejiofor as a hero, but refrains from setting himself goals, lest he fall short. And in the immediate term he’s clearly thrilled to be working at the Young Vic, a venue he has long ranked as one of his favourites.

Is he excited by his One Night In Miami director’s appointment to the helm? “Absolutely. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but I know he’s going to do a great job.” He draws an analogy between Kwei-Armah – who will be the first black man to become Artistic Director of a major London theatre – and Obama. “You can’t expect to level the playing field, or change the entire world, because of the appointment of one man. But it’s a definite step in the right direction.”

With that, Sope Dirisu heads back to the rehearsal room. I think about commiserating that it’s a shame he has to work on his birthday, but I have a distinct feeling that there’s nowhere he would rather be.

Sope Dirisu stars in The Brothers Size at Young Vic until 14 February.