An Interview with actor Jonah Rzeskiewicz

Kevin Elyot’s ‘Coming Clean’ has returned to Trafalgar Studios for a limited one-month run, after the production – by director Adam Spreadbury-Maher – ran in early 2019 to great success. The play is set in 1982 and focuses on a gay couple living in Kentish Town, both of whom are writers. This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonah Rzeskiewicz who is new to the cast. He plays Robert, who becomes caught in the middle of the couple’s relationship when they employ him as a cleaner.

Jonah as Robert in ‘Coming Clean’

Jonah is immediately likeable with an easy smile and a habit of questioning whether his answers make sense in pauses of the conversation. He talked to me about his experiences creating the character of Robert, especially finding his own voice for the role after it was played by Tom Lambert in the previous run. He hadn’t see the earlier production and opted not to watch the video recording because “I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything similar to what was done before; and if I had seen that, everything I’d done would have been informed by that.” Instead he brings a distinctive new perspective to the character. Robert is both naïve and intentional, inexperienced yet subtly calculated. Jonah only had one week of rehearsal time to integrate into the cast and to find his footing in the rehearsal room. I asked him how he approached that challenge: “I thought, I’m going to have to play this character very close to me to give it any kind of truth”, he tells me. He chose to keep his Northern accent because of the time constraints and instead focused on “identifying how Robert talks, what his lexis is and how he uses his syntax.” He says he used Laban efforts to embody Robert and made lots of lists, a technique he learnt at RADA: “it’s like, what Robert says about himself; what Robert says about other people; what other people say about Robert; and what Robert says about the world. Then, you can look at all these lists and you can go ‘oh, he doesn’t really say anything about himself, or ‘he says loads about himself’ – that says a lot about who a person is and what sort of energy they come into a room with.” Jonah cites his time at RADA as key to coming prepared to this role, his first theatre job since graduating. “I was so grateful for my training, it was so thorough […] I remember in the rehearsal period, when it was like ‘there’s only going to be one week’s rehearsal’ and ‘there is a bit of nudity involved’, I was kind of like ‘that’s alright, mate, it’ll be fine! Easy stuff!’”

Jonah becomes particularly passionate when discussing the resonance of the play. The historical setting of ‘Coming Clean’ is unusual, in that it is positioned after the decriminalisation of homosexuality and before the impending AIDS crisis. “The play itself, the writing, that snapshot of 1982 with these young men and what happens to them: it’s so raw. I think you very rarely see this time period expressed in such a beautiful way”. He says he spoke to other cast members about their knowledge and experiences of the ‘80s and also spoke to David Parker, a man who came to talk with the cast about his real life experiences of living in Kentish Town in 1982. Jonah says it was really useful to have David’s insight, giving the example that in the play there is a reference to someone having statues of Michelangelo’s David all around their house; through David he learnt “that is actually something that a lot of older gay men would have and they’d put their jewellery around – it was a really common theme!” Of course, watching these characters with an awareness of the crisis about to hit the gay community creates a tinge of sadness. “It’s very peculiar and it’s interesting to see this kind of relationship before the AIDS epidemic; and what’s sad about it is that you know these people may be dead in a few years’ time. I think if there were no plot at all and it was just these two people talking together, it would still be gorgeous.” He also adds that he has learnt a lot about the AIDS crisis through the role, “stuff that I feel I should have known but obviously in school nobody tells you any of that stuff – you have to go and find out about it yourself, which is really sad because you should know.”

The cast of ‘Coming Clean’

Jonah also spoke to me about his own history and path into acting. At aged sixteen, his school axed A level drama from their syllabus. Instead, he elected to do art and his teacher allowed him to focus on performance art, recommending him plays and encouraging him to keep up his acting. “If it wasn’t for that teacher, I wouldn’t have auditioned for RADA when I was 18, and then graduated and gotten this job.” He had very little other opportunity to pursue drama as a child and says that he feels it is an increasingly common situation for young people, especially in the North of the country: “there’s a lot of arts being cut and there’s just not funding for it.” When asked for his advice for young people wanting to become actors, his message is clear: “absolutely do it […] if you think it’s embarrassing, or you’re not good enough, or something like that – it don’t f***ing matter, you know? Just go for it.”

Before I say goodbye to Jonah, I ask him why people should come to see ‘Coming Clean’ this month. “Because it’s wicked […] I’m not speaking for myself, but the other cast are incredibly, über talented – like, you need to go and see these boys flex their acting muscles!” On the story itself, he summarises “it’s about this couple who are teetering around the problem of infidelity and promiscuity and they’re just working it out together […] They’re so similar but so vastly different in terms of their needs, they only really have each other.” In his humble fashion, he says how lucky he is to be working on the show, especially alongside the other cast and crew. He is, however, doing himself a disservice: Jonah’s casting is anything but luck and his reinterpretation of Robert breathes new energy into an all-round fantastic production.

Click here to read our 5 star review of the 2019 production.

Click here for more information on the current run and to buy tickets.

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Claudia Graham

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