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Mark Povinelli (The Return of Benjamin Lay)

'The Return of Benjamin' Lay tells the story of the revolutionary mind and the remarkable tale of Benjamin Lay - a shepherd, sailor and prophet, who was one of the British Empire's first abolitionists. Nearly 300 years after his death, this production celebrates an extraordinary man who fought against slavery and discrimination, and subverted people's stereotyping of dwarfism in the eighteenth century. We took the opportunity to speak to Mark Povinelli ahead of his UK debut in this production.

How does it feel bringing Benjamin Lay to life on stage, and what is special about him and his story?

The Benjamin Lays of the world have become extinct. A man with such uncompromising conviction just doesn't exist today. And if he did exist, our current society would silence or slander him quicker and faster than the slave owners of the 1700's relegated Ben. I feel a tremendous responsibility to honour the truth of Benjamin Lay. To find in me, a piece of what drove him and to deliver that to an audience in a way that is both challenging and accessible. He's an incredibly idealistic man, yet I am a pretty cynical guy. I'd like to think that I've become a better person by "knowing" him and yet I fear that if Ben were around today, I'd be guilty of side-lining him along with the rest of society. It's been an eye opener.

What's the process like for a show about a historical figure like this? Did you do lots of research prior to rehearsals, and what did you learn to help with the role?

One of the benefits to having one of the playwrights (Marcus Rediker) be the foremost historian on Benjamin Lay, is that research was not an issue. Add in Ron's extensive research on the Quakers and the era, along with Benjamin's own book, it allowed us to really understand the climate of the day and the courage that Benjamin exuded in speaking his truth.

What can audience members expect from the show?

First and foremost, the audience will be hearing from a man forgotten by time and from a segment of society (a little person) that has been universally relegated to the sidelines. Our goal is to deliver a man and his message in a complex, profound and entertaining way that augments one of the most complex, profound and entertaining men in history. Benjamin has a line "... (it) hit me like a rogue wave I never saw coming" - that's how I want the audience to feel.

This is your UK stage debut, are you excited to perform for UK audiences for the first time?

It's funny but the London theatre scene still holds a mystique for American actors. The history, the respect for language, the intelligence of the audiences.. it feels like graduating to the big leagues. I have had the good fortune to perform in over twenty different countries in my career but to be doing this show, on this stage, is a true honour.

This play explores a range of different themes, what would you like to see the audiences take away from this performance?

There is so much depth to this piece that I will leave it up to the audience to decide what to take away. I feel like this is a landmark moment in theatre - an opportunity to amplify a historically marginalised community - the dwarfism community. To have a little person introduce an audience to one of the greatest humans in history, who happened to also be a little person, has never been seen before. Benjamin was a remarkable man, who fought remarkably for his fellow creatures. The fact that he did this all under such derision and scrutiny (of which I have a bit of familiarity) is so important for me and my community to present.

'The Return of Benjamin Lay' runs at Finborough Theatre for a limited four week period commencing on the 13th June 2023. For more tickets and information, head to this link here.


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