Marian Pallister


Kananu Kirimi

THE November rain in Edinburgh is unforgiving: cold, all-pervading, depressing. The cityscape is unremittingly grey. Enter, stage left, Kananu Kirimi, star of the Royal Lyceum Theatre production of Cinderella.

Black, beautiful, a stylish turban on her head, a vivid satin blouse topping sawn-off pants, the presence of the 23-year-old actress is the shocking splash of colour which lightens a Caillebotte painting of a rainy day in Paris.

Kirimi is the rainbow promise of better things to come, not only of kinder winter weather in the capital but of a change in attitude in the British theatre.

The paradox of theatre is that the hierarchy of a profession which exudes unconventionality is hidebound by convention and prejudice.

Pigeonholed at drama school, Kirimi was told she had better learn a south London accent because the roles she would get would undoubtedly be those of black south Londoners.

Yet she walked straight out of college into the Globe Theatre to play Vanessa Redgrave's son in The Tempest. She followed that up with a stunning interpretation of Juliet at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, and from December 1 until January 6 she will play pantomime audiences' favourite leading lady.

But then, Kirimi is something of a paradox herself. Born in Kenya, she was brought up in Kyle of Lochalsh and can put ''Gaelic speaker'' on her CV (although honesty prompts her to say she hasn't spoken the language since she left primary school). She is international and parochial, sophisticate and ingenue, proud and protective of both her Scottish and Kenyan heritage.

She is no ordinary Cinders.

Kirimi's parents met in America

and were married in Edinburgh. She was born in her father's native

Kenya, but sadly the marriage didn't work out and her mother brought her home to Scotland.

She went to the village school in Achmore, just along the road from Kyle. Lessons were in Gaelic and so were the school plays. She remembers enjoying the drama and the excitement of competing in the Mod, but she had no ambition to be an actress.

Her future was to be university-based. Her father is a vet, her maternal grandfather was his professor, and Cambridge was their chosen goal for her. She was sent off to boarding school at Strath Allan in Perthshire and was accepted for the London School of Economics, where she planned to do law and philosophy.

Other forces were, however, at work.

When she was 16, Kirimi had joined the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow. She says: ''I had never been to the

city before and I was from up north and I thought I would get spear-carrier Number 7.''

In fact, she played Lady Macbeth, but puts this good fortune down not to her talent but to the fact that: ''I wasn't embarrassed to snog the guy who was Macbeth in case everyone thought I fancied him.''

She loved the theatre and wanted to be part of it, but everyone in the family except her mother was against it. The plan to do law proceeded, until a gap year after school rang the death knell for a ''proper'' career.

Kirimi went off to India, getting a job through a family friend teaching Tibetan nuns English in Daramsala. ''I think I just realised how happy I was spending a year doing what I wanted to do. I found that I wanted to spend my life doing things that make you happy. Why else should you do things? Just for the sake of proving you are clever?''

She retains some guilt about this attitude, knowing her Kenyan relatives would see it as selfish not to get the best job possible to look after your family.

She went to northern India with only a vague knowledge of who the Dalai Lama was and why there were Tibetan refugees there. She may officially have been the teacher, but she was life's pupil and returned to London with broader horizons.

The LSE was no longer an option for her, and instead she gained entrance to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She confesses that it wasn't until Vanessa Redgrave was playing her dad in Shakespeare at the Globe that her grandfather showed any approval of her career choice.

The college experience was not wholly positive. ''I was deeply shocked by the whole psychological, actory thing,'' she says. ''You know, 'I see you are holding some deep pain here . . .''' she explains, clutching dramatically at her chest.

In third year, however, she acted, got herself an agent who put her up for the job at the Globe, and left college a

couple of months early.

As unaware of the celebrity of

Vanessa Redgrave as she had been of the religious and international status of the Dalai Lama, she was perhaps not as daunted by the thought of working with the legendary actress as she was by the prospect of playing the Globe.

''I was really nervous. I wasn't quite sure whether I should try and say all my opinions or just shut up and listen to all these people who had been doing it for a lot longer than me,'' Kirimi admits.

After such turmoil in rehearsals, playing Prospero on stage was a relief. Redgrave bought them all cream cakes but was, according to her young apprentice: ''Unusual, mad, eccentric.'' The learning process was not confined to acting. Kirimi would discover that rather than spending a quiet weekend off with her family, Redgrave had been protesting in Prague.

''You would never think she was 63,'' says the 23-year-old. The reviews for The Tempest were not good, but Redgrave took it in her stride. Kirimi says: ''It was good to just watch her. It was so strengthening to see a woman saying 'well **** it, I am trying and I'll take risks and don't you try to squash me down to do it how it should be done.'''

When Kirimi came to do Juliet in Edinburgh, the Globe experience with Redgrave meant she was ready to speak her mind. ''Just as much as the text is Shakespeare's, the character is you and you have to give as much as you can,'' she says.

It is possibly this feistiness that impresses the theatre's great and good. Brian Cox was her mentor through college and Kirimi believes he was influential in her getting the Romeo and Juliet role at the Royal Lyceum.

It is rare to encounter such honesty as Kirimi possesses. Juliet had not, she confesses, been on her list of ''must dos'' ''because I hadn't read it properly.'' She had thought it a girly role. Now she says: ''I am so happy to have had a go. It is so beautiful.''

She adds: ''It is really emotional but it is harder to trust yourself not to force or pretend that and to let yourself be real and react to people and let things happen, like Vanessa did.''

Kirimi admits that the idea of panto conjured up a pretty frock and a few songs. However, Stuart Paterson, respected for his Christmas shows, has adapted the traditional story for the Royal Lyceum and Kirimi says it is witty, wicked, and different. Without revealing too much, traditionalists may not approve; feminists should.

Despite having avoided the stereotyping which college threatened would be her lot, Kirimi says she is now looking really closely at the things which define her, like the colour of her skin, her dual nationality, her Scottish accent, even her Gaelic schooling.

In Achmore, racism was so rare that she vividly remembers isolated cruelties. Boarding school was equally protective. Adulthood in London has not been so kind and she has witnessed shocking instances of racism.

She has touched base with her father again. Her Scottishness, too, is important to her, ''but being in London and being black is a huge thing,'' she says. ''I didn't realise after being brought up in Kyle that society puts such a thing on the colour that you are. I find it quite shocking and I am in the middle of realising what that means.''

At 17 she thought she totally knew herself and was in control. ''Now I just question everything,'' she says. Kirimi won't allow herself to be shoehorned into the roles college teachers foresaw for each student. Nor will she confine her ambitions to the usual coveted theatre company places. She recently did a workshop in Byrony Castle with the BBC for Scottish ethnic minority writing and says: ''It was just such a brilliant atmosphere.'' The Traverse excites her. Street theatre in Kenya appeals.

In second year at college, producer Toby Gough, well known to Festival audiences, offered Kirimi a job touring Kenya and Tanzania with a version of Three Sisters. That she was talked into turning it down by the college authorities is an abiding regret. To do something meaningful in Kenya is a growing passion which echoes Redgrave's human rights struggles.

Kirimi says: ''As long as you are

challenging yourself, at least you

are living.''