Hannah Azuonye on Brief Encounter: ‘Moments that really encapsulate the intrinsic complexity of humans and human connection’

Hannah Azuonye in rehearsals for Brief Encounter. Photo: Joel Fildes

Based on the classic film with a screenplay by Noël Coward, developed by Coward from his own 1936 one-act play Still Life, Emma Rice’s stage adaptation is an amalgamation of the film and the play.

Hannah Azuonye, whose recent roles include Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at the Globe Theatre in London, was already aware of Brief Encounter, having seen Emma Rice’s production.

“I just thought it was such a charming and beautiful show and I remember coming out feeling really warm-hearted, and really loving the music element that’s woven through and that feeling of open-heartedness.”

Though she had no expectation at that time of ever playing the lead character Laura, Azuonye remembers the character’s expression “being cracked wide open” across the course of the play.

Now, however, Azuonye is playing Laura in Royal Exchange Theatre’s new production of the play, directed by Sarah Frankcom, which opened for previews on Saturday ahead of an official opening night on Thursday. She stars opposite Baker Mukasa who takes on the role of Alec. 

Though she had seen Rice’s adaptation, Azuonye was less aware of the film as she came into the Royal Exchange’s production, and went back to watch it. “I thought it was beautiful,” she says.

“It does however lack some of the really great plotlines that this adaptation has, which brings in the [other] two love stories, weaves them through and really strengthens the central love story with Alec and Laura because it keeps them in dialogue with other relationships that are at different points… they all balance each other out quite beautifully.”

Hannah Azuonye in rehearsals for Brief Encounter with Baker Mukasa. Photo: Joel Fildes

That central love story sees two strangers begin a love affair after a chance encounter in a busy railway station with the world swirling around them. Though it’s a seemingly simple plot line, there’s much more to it.

“It’s two married people falling in love and dealing with the consequences of it. But within that, there are lots of moments that really encapsulate the intrinsic complexity of humans and human connection.”

In preparing to open the show, Azuonye has been working through those complexities – the things that make her character who she is, saying it has been rewarding “finding all those layers of Laura.”

She’s also been able to find plenty of things within her that she has been able to identify with, which has made the process of developing the character easier than other roles.

“She’s an overthinker; she can hold tension quite a lot. But she’s also got this powerfully creative inner world that… very often, particularly at the beginning of the play, feels like she’s not allowing herself to express fully.”

For Azuonye part of that is that Laura understands her creative potential but for various reasons chooses not to push forward with it. “For ease and for being able to fit into the world that she exists in – and just because sometimes it’s easier to repress things that might come with a lot of emotional weight – she just chooses to hold back.”

Those who saw Rice’s production can expect something new from the Royal Exchange Theatre’s production, with Azuonye praising Frankcom’s approach to the show. “She’s really brilliant… she’s just got such a clear vision,” she says of the director, who she also worked with on Macbeth.

Hannah Azuonye in rehearsals for Brief Encounter with Baker Mukasa, director Sarah Frankcom watches on. Photo: Joel Fildes

It’s not just the Frankcom that Azuonye has enjoyed working with. “Baker’s just like such an incredible actor, and such a wonderful person… there’s just an openness. And the whole cast is absolutely sensational – incredibly talented.” 

The show has “a lot of surprises,” she adds, that “showcase the sheer talent that this cast has.”

The direction won’t be the only change for audience members, with the new production featuring new musical numbers. “By new music, I mean, old music – it’s Noël Coward [songs]… all of the music in the production… is Noël Coward music.”

Audiences can expect new arrangements of the pieces too. “We’ve got this extraordinary musical supervisor and arranger Matthew Malone who’s just made the most stunning jazz arrangements.”

All of that is making Brief Encounter such a great experience for Azuonye. “It just brings together the music, the role, the team, the theatre… There are lots of things that feel like they are coming together for this and I’m feeling really excited and extremely grateful.”

Brief Encounter is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 13 January