Think Shawshank Redemption, and it’s almost impossible not to think of Morgan Freeman in the role of Red.
That’s the challenge Ben Onwukwe faces as he brings the character to life on stage in a new touring version of the story at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre and The Hawth in Crawley.
But clearly, there’s scope to reinvent. In fact, the biggest change of all between Stephen King’s original novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the 1994 Oscar-winning film was actually the character of Red.
“In the original story, Red is actually a red-headed Irishman!”
The play, like the film and novella before it, follows Andy Dufresne (played by ex-EastEnder Paul Nicholls), a banker handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover and now incarcerated in the notorious Shawshank penitentiary.
Unflinching in his protests of his innocence, Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, and things take a slight turn for the better. However, when Warden Stammas decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched…
“A novella is a short novel, and when I was young and doing O level English, it was always great when we were doing a novella,” Ben recalls. “It was always a couple of hundred pages shorter than a novel! But I think we all read this one, just to try to get a sense of what Stephen King was aiming at and to pick up on his world, this incarcerated world, a brutal place where words like hope and faith and redemption come up. There is something Christian that can be discerned.
“But I think the interesting thing about my character is that he is clear that he is guilty,” says Ben, who boasts a 30-year stage career including productions at The RSC and the Royal Court. “Red is a double-murderer. When we meet him, he has already done 20 years of his time, and I think he has mellowed. One of the lines I have to say is that the judge was right and that he was as guilty as hell. Once you accept your guilt, it makes your life a lot easier. He fixed the brakes on his wife’s car because his wife had been playing around, but what he doesn’t know is that his wife has taken her neighbour for a ride with a child. They all get slaughtered, and it weighs heavily on him.”
All these years later, Red is god-like, stoic, philosophical, Ben says: “He is trying to deal with things and make a life for himself in this penitentiary, and then he comes across Andy who insists he is innocent. You get an interesting bond forming between them in this horrible environment.
“When I was offered the job, I had nothing to go on except the book and the film, and my first thought was that I should just try to get the essence of Morgan Freeman on screen, the cool, iconic character, but when I started working with the director, I started trying to get the character more as he comes off the page, more feisty than laid-back. We have now got more of a combination of the screen persona and Stephen King’s character in the novella. Morgan had to be the way in for me, but then you try to reclaim the character a bit for yourself. That’s my way of being him.”
The Shawshank Redemption is at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre from October 17-22. Tickets 02380 711811 or online at mayflower.org.uk. Also The Hawth, Crawley (October 10-15).
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