Like many theatre productions, the future of Mel Pennant’s Seeds, due to begin a run at Soho Theatre this week, looks uncertain. Before the cancellation and following its UK tour, we sat down with one of the lead actors to talk about their involvement in this powerful play.
When preparing for my interview with Penny Layden, who plays Jackie in Mel Pennant’s Seeds, I discovered that it’s a highly charged play that will undoubtedly make audiences feel uncomfortable and invite much discussion about race. Parallels too, have been drawn between Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the play’s subject matter; provoking as it does, a wider discussion about knife crime and race. When Layden answers the phone, I ask if her character, Jackie, is a difficult character to play with. “It’s a great challenge but if you’re playing a murderer, even if you’re playing MacBeth… how do you get into that psyche? It’s the same kind of question,” Layden responds. “It was difficult to get into the mindset of someone thinking that these things are okay to say.” Her co-star is Judith Jacob, playing the character of Evelyn whose son Michael, a young black man, has been murdered. Nobody has been brought to justice and Jackie’s son, Daniel has been acquitted of the murder, but Evelyn, convinced of his guilt, campaigns for his arrest.
Penny Layden is an ardent anti-racist playing a not-so subtle racist. This is a strong thread running through the play, with a lot of focus on people who don’t think they are racist, but “patently are,” as Layden puts it. Jackie falls into this category. “We as a society will have heard what she says spoken by many people who don’t think they’re being unreasonable,” she contemplates. With a tone that makes me think she has challenged racists before, Layden says that this “needs challenging and that’s one of the things this play does… holds a mirror up to those kinds of people.”
Layden believes that the theme of race in Seeds is relevant now and “especially because we have a racist prime minister; an openly racist prime minister.” Far right groups, she says, have more license and are given more platforms than they have had in recent history. These groups can say and do things that would previously be unacceptable but are more acceptable when, “you have a prime minister talking about Muslim women as letterboxes,” Layden says. “I’ve always been taught to confront it… if I’m in the back of the cab and you get the racist taxi driver, you don’t not say anything. You talk about it. You challenge it.”
It becomes obvious once we start talking about Jackie that my interviewee is reluctant for her to be just a racist, rather it is important for her to be a layered and complex character. “I’m very keen not to demonise her because otherwise it lets everybody off the hook.” She tells me that if people are able to just sit in the audience and think “she’s a moron, she’s uneducated, she’s an idiot, she’s ignorant,” then they can “other” her and “If it’s just goodies and baddies then we’ve lost the argument because that’s not how life is… she’s a mother protecting her son.” If Jackie was a character who was a one dimensional, poor, working class racist then the “nice, white middle class people who come to see the theatre are let off the hook,” Layden adds to drive her point home.
Growing up in Dewsbury, Layden was familiar with the National Front, a far-right political party that organised marches there in the mid-1970s; marches which gained traction with white working-class communities. An influx of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants brought big change to local communities and around the same time, mills were closing in the area and people were losing jobs. The NF used the unemployment to their benefit and blamed these immigrants. Layden’s parents were proactive anti-racism protesters who would go along to anti-fascist marches, ensuring she stood out among her peers. “Most other kids weren’t talking in the language I was… most parents weren’t doing those things,” she elaborates. Much like her parents, Layden believes that there is a way of challenging these sorts of beliefs “through the arts as well.”
In 2017, Seeds was shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon award, albeit under a different name (A Black Fella Walks into a Bar). From the sound of things, Layden is well-placed to portray Jackie masterfully and with nuance, given her experience around racial disharmony growing up and her views on how racism manifests itself in society today. Her strong desire to not portray a one-dimensional character and the relevance of the issues explored in relation to today’s political landscape makes this an absolute must-see.
For more information, visit Seeds the Play’s website.