Before theatres closed, Ashley Zhangazha had just finished his run as Ike Turner in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre in the West End, a role he’d been playing since April last year. Ashley has had many roles over the years, including playing Biff in Death of a Salesman, Pericles in Pericles at the National Theatre and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, which saw him win Best Performance in a Musical at the 2018 UK Theatre Awards. Taking time to talk with us, Ashley says about his time as Ike Turner in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, being part of Death of a Salesman at Royal Exchange Theatre and performing at the National Theatre as Pericles.
How was it playing Ike Turner in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical?
It was a really interesting and challenging experience. I was in the show for a year, the longest I’ve done anything, and it was fascinating to play a real life character and have the opportunity to get under the skin of a difficult, volatile and complex human being. I enjoyed the research and rigour involved in bringing him to life.
What was it like joining the show and had you seen it before rehearsals started?
It was pretty mad, a whirlwind! The energy, commitment and talent of each and every member of the cast blew me away when I saw it. Then when I started in the show myself, it was a joy to watch and play alongside the rest of the company who really did give everything at every single show and deserve all the salutes.
How was the experience performing the Tina Turner songs?
Great, I’m a big fan of her stuff now. Although the music does seem to follow me wherever I go.
What was Death of a Salesman like to be part of at the Royal Exchange Theatre?
I had such a brilliant time playing the role of Biff, a rich part in a truly iconic play. The Royal Exchange is a really special theatre for me. I’m fortunate to have been in three productions there and have a real love for the City of Manchester and the people in that building who are all so kind and generous. Sarah Frankcom brought together a really brilliant company and I have deep respect for everyone in that team.
Can you tell us about performing at the National Theatre as Pericles in Pericles?
I can honestly say that this was one of the most important and uplifting moments of my career. The piece was adapted by the wonderful Chris Bush and featured a community company of over 200 people along with six professional actors on the Olivier stage. A huge undertaking, but brilliantly and beautifully woven together by the inimitable Emily Lim, who remains a constant inspiration. I’ve never felt so moved, I truly believe this is what theatre looks like, and I am so proud to have been a part of it.
You performed as Harcourt in The Country Wife, how was this?
I hadn’t done a Restoration play since drama school so it was interesting to revisit this genre of work a little later on in my career. The play is complex and knotty but a real romp. I’d never worked at Chichester before and it was good to spend a summer down there with a top bunch of actors.
Can you say about playing Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls in Manchester?
I had never done a musical before as an adult, but I was so thrilled to get to do this. Sky is a great part and one I always wanted to play. I had the time of my life doing this with Michael Buffong and Talawa Theatre Company.
Your portrayal of Sky saw you win a 2018 UK Theatre Award for Best Performance in a Musical, what was this like?
It was a complete surprise! I was not expecting it at all. I have already spoken of my love of The Royal Exchange and this was another hugely enjoyable experience at that theatre. I was really proud of the show and for me the UK Theatre Award was the cherry on top.
As part of the London premiere of Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach, you played Lars Koch; can you say more about this production?
This was such an interesting piece because the audience got to decide my character’s fate and the outcome of the show. Lars Koch was a highly-trained fighter pilot faced with an impossible decision. Near the end of the play, the audience were asked to vote on keypads as to whether I was guilty or innocent. How the show ended was dependent on the result of the vote. It was a fascinating premise and sparked great post-show debates.
In 2013, you received an Ian Charleson Award for your performance in Macbeth and a commendation at the 2010 Ian Charleson Awards for King Lear, can you say about these?
I was so humbled to have received the Ian Charleson. Both of these jobs were very early in my career and they were both incredibly formative as I look back. Macbeth was directed by Daniel Evans who I admire enormously. King Lear directed by Michael Grandage was a magic job, I got to watch Derek Jacobi give one of the best performances I’ve ever seen night after night, and we ended with a run in New York!
You have screen experience in shows including Victoria and Humans, what do you enjoy most about screen work?
For me, I suppose it’s the novelty of it. I seem to spend most of my time in the theatre so when I get to go on set I find it fascinating. There is a staggering amount of people involved in creating a piece of television and I love observing all the different departments doing their jobs brilliantly. I really enjoy screen work and am hoping to focus on it more as my career continues.
Last year, you appeared in short film Parlour Games; can you tell us about the film and who you play?
This was a really cool short directed by Danny Sangra. I play a character called Mr. Bloom and the premise of the film in a nutshell is a group of individuals trapped in a room faced with a decision of whether it’s better to stay or leave. Check it out!
Was there anything that helped you decide on an acting career and to train at Guildhall?
I did a little bit of professional acting when I was younger and the desire to do it as a career never really faded away after those experiences. I was also hugely influenced by my time with the National Youth Theatre. My aspiration to train at Drama School developed whilst I was studying for an Economics and Politics degree at Manchester and I spent my final year auditioning rather than writing my dissertation. I really connected with the ethos and the feel of Guildhall, and they also offered me a scholarship to train there which was definitely a deciding factor. I learned a lot there but I’m keen for that institution and many others to heed the strong and necessary calls for change that are essential as we move forward from these difficult times.
What are some of your favourite theatre and TV shows to watch?
One of the useful things about lockdown has been the opportunity to catch up on all the great content out there. The National Theatre streams throughout lockdown have been great and I’ve been able to see a couple of things I hadn’t managed to catch live.
TV-wise, I finally watched Succession which is brilliant. I also really loved Normal People and I May Destroy You. I’m currently watching Insecure on Netflix and also re-watching The Wire.
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