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Hannah Khalique-Brown on How Those "Naughty" College Days Have Led Her to 'The Secret Garden'

It is a ridiculously gloomy day in London, and the rain refuses to stop pouring in sheaths against my window panes. “I hope it stops before our performance this evening, otherwise everyone is going to get so badly drenched,” quips Hannah Khalique-Brown, while beaming at me in a high-neck pullover on Google Meets. 

Companies of players up and down the country are mostly impervious to the tempests of Britain’s temperamental weather, but not Khalique-Brown. She stars in The Secret Garden at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – her first performing sojourn in an amphitheatre, she tells me.

“The fear of the rain and my love for the screen notwithstanding, I am so glad I could get the time to actually do a production like this,” says the 24-year-old, whose leading role as Mary Lennox is demonstrably a sea of change from her last few Hollywood adventures. In 2022, Khalique-Brown earned immense praise for her breakout performance in The Undeclared War (Channel 4), where her character joins a team of cybersecurity analysts tackling unprecedented national-level risks. She would then go on to star as Grown Up Skipper in Greta Gerwig's cultural phenomenon Barbie, and she is also expected to be seen in Dune: Prophecy (Max) next year. 

Hannah Khalique-Brown (as Mary Lennox) and the company of The Secret Garden. Photo by Alex Brenner.

Yet, having been cast in these critically acclaimed, big-budget projects, Khalique-Brown’s career as an actor began in the most humble and ordinary of circumstances. 

Recalling her childhood days, Khalique-Brown recounts stories about engaging with her father in playful acting, impersonating a range of voices and characters in the back of their car. “We used to create characters, their life, affections and embody them for hours. I also learnt ballet and, as far as I can remember, performance has always been a very important part of my life,” she shares. However, it was only during her time as a Literature undergraduate at King’s College London that she made up her mind about pursuing acting professionally.

“My career kind of started weirdly at King’s because I had joined the King’s Players, which is the college’s theatre company,” remembers Khalique-Brown fondly. Her debut foray came in the form of Philip Ridley’s 1994 two-act drama Ghost from a Perfect Place, which was produced by her then-senior Tabatha Pickett (Pickett also remains in the stagey world, presently working with the National Theatre). “It was the first play I did after leaving school, and it did not feel like a student play in terms of the stereotype. It was such a professional production that everyone took it very seriously, although it was just us performing in tutus,” she chuckles.

Following the flood of positive feedback for her maiden college performance, Khalique-Brown began preparing herself. She tells me about taking acting classes, being mentored by her coach Lawrence Mitchell, attending workshops at the actor’s centre, and performing in fringe theatre. “I wanted to think about acting as something I could do right then, and not as something I could do later,” she explains. “And so I decided to take the energy of student theatre out there into London, where there is already a fringe world in existence in a bid to be seen.”

Hannah Khalique-Brown (as Mary Lennox) and Amanda Hadingue (as Mrs. Medlock) in The Secret Garden. Photo by Alex Brenner.

But it was not long before Khalique-Brown’s prowess as an actress began opening doors for her professionally. By the time she was in her second university year, she had already acquired an agent and had started working as an actor on the side. 

“That was quite naughty of me I guess because I was auditioning for stuff, running a part-time job at a cafe, and then attending lectures as well, since my contact hours in my department were slightly low.”

However, as COVID-19 brought the whole world to a staggering standstill, Khalique-Brown who was in her third year and finishing her dissertation, was forced to shift her practice online as well. As someone who also began his undergraduate days at the peak of the pandemic, the difficulties of transitioning from the comfort of a physical space to an online one are not lost on me. In fact, Khalique-Brown and I share KCL heritage, as I too am a Master’s Literature student at her alma mater. I tell her about some of the ways that King’s theatre societies have adapted to this sudden shift, especially in a medium of performance that so heavily banks on the intimacy of the physical space. 

“It was really bizarre when we had to go online. But eventually, something switched in my head and I realised I need to make this turn to my advantage,” says Khalique-Brown, with a mischievous grin in her eyes.

I am taken by pleasant surprise next when she suddenly pulls her device camera towards her face in a shocking and unprecedented close-up of her eyes and forehead. As I look at her, deeply perplexed, she continues speaking from this new position – describing a particular Zoom rehearsal where she was undertaking the role of a high school girl. “The original scene was of a group of friends meeting after school and we had to change that to a post-school FaceTime. My character was a particularly loud and assertive personality, and I had to convey the same through my virtual positionality. By pulling in my camera through this provocative technique, I could convey things about the character that I could not otherwise in a physical space,” explains Khalique-Brown, as she slowly sits straight up in her chair again.  

Adapting to the demands of any performance space is a lesson Khalique-Brown carries with her to date. It is hugely evidenced through her turn as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, where her orphaned character travels from colonial Calcutta to the Yorkshire moors, refuging – whilst wracked with unfathomable grief – in a sprawling mansion. It is here that Mary comes of age, as she discovers an abandoned garden that once belonged to her now-dead Aunt, and accidentally stumbles upon and strikes an unlikely friendship with her crippled cousin, Colin. 

Hannah Khalique-Brown (as Mary Lennox) and Theo Angel (as Colin) in The Secret Garden. Photo by Alex Brenner.

But Burnett's novel, which is more than 300 pages long, isn't an easy text to adapt for stage – let alone perform. There is the challenge of translating the exquisite prose into dialogues that will propel the narrative action forward within a two-act structure, and here is where director Anna Himali Howard (Graceland, Fleabag, Othello) comes in with an ingenious use of the Greek Chorus to not only tackle this problem but also depict a multitude of human and non-human characters that populate Burnett's text. 

“I think it is really brave of them to do this if you ask me. Because there is so much richness in the descriptions in the original text, that they did not want to do away with on the stage. Eventually, they decided to go with the device of the chorus to be this narrative vehicle that translates the richness of Burnett’s prose on stage and it just feels right for the spirit of the play as well.”

Khalique-Brown’s Mary Lennox is a meditative calibration of external performance techniques and internal emotional communication. It is an absolute delight watching her go from a foot-thumping, tantrum-throwing, deeply unlikable pre-teen child to a young girl on whom the weight of her loneliness gradually descends. “We worked a lot on trust and movement coordination, in order to convey emotions and the psycho[logical] space of our characters in as much of a non-cognitive [way] as possible,” shares Khalique-Brown.

“Although every character can be like a Trojan Horse for you, I love playing characters that are far away from me, and I really think Mary Lennox was particularly a character who was very different from me,” she adds. But as someone of part South-Asian heritage herself, Khalique-Brown is not far from the role she plays on stage every day. One of the most astounding features of this production, as we discuss, is its underlining of British colonialism in India – an aspect Burnett strangely omits in her novel.

Jack Humphrey (as Archibald Craven), Patrick Osborne (as Captain Lennox), and Sharan Phull (as Lata/The Robin) in The Secret Garden. Photo by Alex Brenner.

“Anna and her writers decided this even before we actors came on board, and so many of us are brown as well,” says Khalique-Brown. With Priyanka Basu, a King’s College professor (bleed red!) as creative consultant on board, Mary’s mixed-race status in colonial India was an issue that the team was determined to highlight in their production. 

“Anna herself is part-South-Asian, and they wanted to take what the book was hinting at and push it further for our modern sensibilities. Because we are ready for these conversations now."

In many ways, The Secret Garden is a production steeped in relevance, as it advocates for an embracing of disabled people and the regenerative, healing potential of nature. Amidst life's and London's unrelenting waves, I ask Khalique-Brown if she has a favourite among the thousands of gardens that dot this city. She pauses for a second before arrowing her current playground, Regent's Park, itself: “During our rehearsal days, I spent many moments here reflecting on my craft as an actor. But I guess one is always spoiled for choice in London, and there’s always Primrose Hill to fall back on. It has the best sunsets.”

As she speaks, I notice from my window a clear, blue sky, and the sun bouncing off the glistening roads. I grudgingly contemplate a quick trip to the Hill, but in that momentof looking at my companion, all I manage is a full smile. Perhaps another day, should the rain only be taking a brief respite, but this thought is a luxury that Khalique-Brown can ill afford at this moment. She must quickly thank the rain gods in the skies and run off to prepare for her evening performance, come hell or high (rain) water. 

The Secret Garden plays at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 20 July.


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