Nicky Priest cuts against the grain to take on the RSC in a new play about Caravaggio

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Nicky Priest has begun to make a name for himself principally within stand-up comedy.  He recently landed the part of Danny in the RSC’s forthcoming production of The Seven Acts of Mercy. Colin Hambrook talked to the young actor about the role.

Photo of actor Nicky Priest wearing a t-shirt

Nicky Priest in rehearsal with the RSC. Photo © Ellie-Kurttz

“I first heard the Royal Shakespeare Company were looking for a learning-disabled actor to audition for a part through Richard Hayhow of Open Theatre Company, so I thought ‘why not?’ I’ve done a few pieces of voice acting so when it came to the audition I made sure that I had the voice of the role down to a T – to ensure the character came across with the right emotion.”

The RSC were clearly impressed and gave Priest the part in their forthcoming mainstream production at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

“It is hinted in the play that Danny is on the autistic spectrum, and more severely than I am – so having similar experiences meant I could easily identify with Danny’s world view. He also knows what it’s like to be patronized and talked down to as if he doesn’t exist.”

The Seven Acts of Mercy is set simultaneously in Naples, 1606 and present-day Bootle. Caravaggio is in the act of painting his masterpiece –his first painting since he killed a man and fled Rome. Meanwhile, in the present day, Danny is a subject of one of ‘the acts of mercy’ – to shelter the homeless.

“When I came to study Caravaggio’s painting I thought about the message the painter is trying to get across and realised it presents a question about being human. The beauty of art is that it doesn’t have a stereotypical meaning. It would be boring if it did. And so, the painting, like the play, is very much open to interpretation. In the process of working on the commission for his painting, he’s trying to work out his relationship to the idea of compassion.”

“Danny’s story connects with a pilgrim in the painting who is asking a landlord for shelter. The painting serves as a critique linking the two timelines. Danny lives with his sister Jennifer who looks after him. He’s recently had his state benefits cut off and they’ve been put in a compromising position. Their rent money has gone and they are being made homeless.”

“Mickey has been taking his grandfather, Leon literally and is trying to ‘do’ the seven acts of kindness. So, he decides to take Danny and Jennifer home, without his grandfather’s consent. A dilemma ensues because Jennifer feels awkward being put in that position. Danny’s way of feeling productive in the situation is to colour-coordinate Leon’s bookshelf. Leon and Nicky are expecting to be moved out by their housing association anyway, so Nicky’s thinking if we house a disabled guy we’ll be able to stay and everyone wins. At the same time Mickey is trying to prove himself to his granddad by taking his teachings to heart.”

Priest has the resolve to make a success of a career in the performing arts. The Seven Acts of Mercy is his first big break and one that he’s clearly enjoying.

“Being involved with the RSC has been a blast. Everybody in the play is so friendly and we get on – as well as being professional. You’ve no idea how good this cast is in terms of their talent. The acting is phenomenal. Absolutely brilliant.”

Nicky Priest on set with RSC production, The Seven Ats of Mercy

Nicky Priest in rehearsal with the RSC. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

“I would also say that this is a fantastic opportunity for me to show that just because a person might have learning difficulties doesn’t mean we don’t have high levels of intelligence or that we can’t do great things. I know from the way that Danny goes about things that he’s intelligent enough to know right from wrong. When people talk about him as if he’s not there, he understands exactly what’s going on and how insulting it is to be treated like that.”

In addition to the opportunity at the RSC, Priest is working on his career as a stand-up comedian. He’s been doing stand-up since early 2014 and has used that time to train, to get better as a comic and develop his skills.

He did a spot with BecauseWeCanCanCan – set up by Open Theatre Company in partnership with Birmingham Hippodrome in the summer of 2016. He is set to build on the work with the company who advocate for emerging learning-disabled artists to support them to develop careers.

Priest is also involved in the development of a Creative Minds conference – set to happen in Birmingham in October 2017. Open Theatre Company is a lead partner with Creative Minds. The conference will have a focus on young people with learning disabilities and developing opportunities with them to advance their careers as artists. The plan is to bring disabled talent together in front of arts organisations and to showcase professional work.

“Our goal is to create opportunities for professional paid work for learning-disabled performers. Ultimately our aim is to fund disabled artists to get support for individual goals. We’re in the process of developing the ideas, through board meetings at the Birmingham Hippodrome. They’ve given us access to facilities and have shown commitment to helping us get it off the ground. We’ve also helped create a production of Hansel and Gretel under the BecauseWeCanCanCan banner, working in partnership with Birmingham Hippodrome and Open Theatre Company – I played the storyteller.”

Building further on his stand-up comedy performance Priest recently did a course at the Birmingham mac with funding from Arts Connect. Outside of his RSC schedule he is being mentored by Janice Connolly.

“Janice has helped me decipher my style and to recognise what I can and can’t do. She’s worked with Peter Kay and BBC Radio 2, so she really knows her stuff. The plan is to develop a 20-minute act as part of a performance at the mac alongside Connolly’s alter ego Barbara Nice.”

So as well as seeing him on the stage, we’re set to see more of Priest on the comedy circuit. He is one of a handful of young performers on the autistic spectrum who are beginning to create a name for themselves as actors: Jules Roberston who debuted on Holby City at the beginning of 2016 and Cian Binchy who made headlines in 2015 with his show The Misfit Analysis are two other examples in what is becoming a trend.

With a dedication to honing his craft, Priest is on the up and it’s clear that he’s a performer we’ll hear more of in the future. As he says:

“We’ve had enough of being patronised. We’ve proven time and again that we’re talented artists, yet we’re barely promoted and that makes us sick.”

We’ve long heard the excuse that non-disabled actors have to play the parts of disabled characters in plays like Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, because there just isn’t the talent out there in the disability arts community. Priest is set to prove the West End wrong – and to do so with a vengeance.

The RSC production of The Seven Acts of Mercy is at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon from 24 November 2016 to 10 February 2017. Please click on this link to the RSC website for details.