James McArdle on playing Macbeth opposite Saoirse Ronan: We wanted to explore that chemistry that we have

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James McArdle at the Almeida Theatre  (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
James McArdle at the Almeida Theatre (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

James McArdle has no time for the curse of Macbeth. When he and Saoirse Ronan, who stars opposite him in the Almeida’s new production of the Scottish play (as some of his more risk-averse colleagues might call it), initially “got brought into the theatre and met a lot of the production team, I said it in my first sentence. Everyone made me go outside and do the turnaround,” he grins (if you’ve dared to utter “Macbeth” off-script, it’s actorly tradition to leave the theatre, spin around three times and spit over your shoulder to ward off bad luck). “I just think it should be like Voldemort, you should not be frightened,” he adds. “I’m like, ‘bring it on…’”

He does concede, however, that while “we’ve just been doing [the play] for a week or so,” with previews beginning at the start of the month, he is “covered in bruises already” - although that’s probably less to do with Shakespearean curses than the sheer “intensity” of director Yaël Farber’s “elemental” production. Not that McArdle — probably now best known as the the deeply unnerving Deacon Mark Burton in HBO’s smash hit drama Mare of Easttown, though he’s been a stage stalwart for years — is a stranger to intense roles. Born in Glasgow, the 32-year-old joined Paisley youth theatre group PACE (fellow alumni include James McAvoy and Richard Madden) as a teenager and absconded to London without telling his parents to audition for Rada at 17. He’s worked consistently since finishing there, later earning an Evening Standard Theatre Award nomination for his lead turn in Platonov, David Hare’s adaptation of Chekhov’s early play, and an Olivier nomination for his part in the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Angels in America (notoriously gruelling in both length - eight hours - and subject matter - the Aids crisis in the 80s).

James McArdle (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
James McArdle (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Then came Hare’s reinvention of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (re-styled as Peter Gynt) at the National in 2019. “It’s a four and a half hour play and you don’t really leave the stage - I kind of thought, there’s not many other parts in the canon that will be as demanding as that but my god… [doing Macbeth] I just feel like I’ve been hit with a truck every night,” he laughs, explaining that he’s been craving mundane conversations as a way to switch off. “I phoned my mum and dad and they were talking to me about what shade of white they’re painting the dining room… I was just in heaven!”

They’re “the only people” he knows who are yet to watch Mare of Easttown, surely a contender for one of the best TV shows of 2021, which brought McArdle to a new audience when it aired this spring. Creepy Deacon Mark was an early suspect in the series’ whodunnit, and he stood out among a staggeringly talented ensemble cast headed by Kate Winslet as chain-vaping, aerosol cheese-snacking cop Mare. He was busy filming another project when it debuted, “but [my parents] just kept saying, ‘People keep talking about that Handmaids of Eastwick!’” He “spoke to Kate a lot” during its run, too, “because I could tell obviously that there was a big buzz about it.”

McArdle, right with Kate Winslet and Evan Peters in Mare of Easttown (© 2021 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
McArdle, right with Kate Winslet and Evan Peters in Mare of Easttown (© 2021 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

Macbeth has been on McArdle’s mind for the best part of two years, ever since the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold raised it as a potential project. “I was so keen for it not to just be a horror show,” he says. “I wanted to really go into the emotional life of [the couple]... it is actually a tragedy rather than a Halloween event.” The production presents a more equal dynamic between its central couple, and from the start he and Farber “spoke a lot about making sure that in particular Lady Macbeth’s journey has a more clear trajectory.”

McArdle first met Ronan while filming Mary, Queen of Scots in 2017 (he played the treacherous half-brother to her queen; both sported extravagant Tudor hair) and was later cast as her character’s staid Victorian husband in Ammonite, which also starred Winslet. “People might not think this but it’s really rare when you meet an actor, when you don’t have to put extra work in,” he says of the four-time Oscar nominee. “Sometimes you meet an actor and start a scene and you’re looking at each other’s eyes and you know you’re talking and listening to each other. I know that sounds really basic and actor-y, but it’s actually really rare. You don’t find it much, so it was clear to us that we wanted something meatier [to work on together].”

When those initial conversations with Farber turned towards possible Lady Macbeths, then, there was only one contender. “We wanted something that we could really push each other with and explore that chemistry that we have.” Now they’re having old married couple chats about how to decorate their shared dressing room and have decided to call their characters Neil and Susan, he explains, laughing at the dissonance of crowning a tragic hero with “such a pedestrian name.”

In rehearsals with Saoirse Ronan (Marc Brenner)
In rehearsals with Saoirse Ronan (Marc Brenner)

He and Ronan (who is 27) are younger than your average Macbeths: often the couple are cast as middle-aged (see Joel Coen’s upcoming film adaptation, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, or Daniel Craig’s newly announced post-Bond Broadway production) so their grab for power at any cost has more of a “last chance saloon” feel to it. Their comparative youth, McArdle says, allows them to explore “the entitlement of our young… this sort of [need for] instant gratification, instant success, instant profile or awareness. I’m not really into that but it fascinates me in others and it fascinated me about [the Macbeths].”

In this version, he says, “if they’d done it right,” ie. without the killing spree, “they’d have been king and queen in their 50s, but they were like ‘no, we want it now,’ and without proving they have what it takes - they want the status, the adoration, everything. I know this sounds incredibly jaded, but that’s what I think of the world that we’re in.” It’s all about “the image or the status of where you are,” he adds, rather than “what you’ve done to get there… that definitely comes undone for the Macbeths.” Their spin on the Scottish play has clearly got them pondering celebrity culture: McArdle notes that certain “celebrity shit shows” have “a real sort of classical element under them” that’s “Greek [or] Shakespearean,” while Ronan recently told the BBC that they “keep thinking about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as like a Kim [Kardashian] and Kanye [West] situation.”

He and Ronan have decided to call their characters Neil and Susan (Marc Brenner)
He and Ronan have decided to call their characters Neil and Susan (Marc Brenner)

Their early performances have had “an extra charge and intensity because everyone’s very aware of the privilege of being back together,” he admits. “I was curious to see what an audience would be like, if they were apprehensive, but they seemed hungry for it.” Will Winslet be coming along to support her former co-stars? “I’d say so, yeah, I’d say she’ll be here with bells on.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth is at the Almeida Theatre, until November 20. almeida.co.uk

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