James McAvoy and Claire Foy make a murderously attractive pair.
What can they bring to the Scottish play?
Jasper Rees – 10 February 2013
In the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World show last year, the most gruesome exhibit was a set of iron gags and jagged bridles used for the restraining of witches. Jacobean anxiety about the dire influence of “weird sisters” lives on in the rituals that surround Macbeth. The Scottish play, as actors fearfully call it, is back in the West End; and doubtless, at the Trafalgar Studios, there will be much spinning, spitting and cursing to counter the usual hexes. But they can be assured of warding off ill fortune at the box office, thanks to the presence of the most attractive young couple to murder their way to the Scottish throne in living memory.
Combine the years of James McAvoy, 33, and Claire Foy, 28, and they’re still five short of Patrick Stewart’s age when he embarked on his award-winning run in the role in 2007. McAvoy’s gingery beard has stripped away some of the callowness associated with his performances in The Last King of Scotland, Atonement and The Last Station. “When you meet Macbeth, he’s been away for quite a while,” he suggests, “and I don’t think he’s had access to a shaving kit.” For Foy, though, there’s no getting away from the fact that twice last year — in Love Love Love at the Royal Court and in the BBC’s White Heat — she was thoroughly convincing as a teenager. She should by rights be having a crack at Juliet. Indeed, she once went up for the role at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but the job required her to double up as Gigi. “And I can’t sing to save my bloody life. It was a disaster.” Instead, for her professional Shakespeare debut, she will be given the daggers.
Not that there will be much else attractive about this account of Macbeth. The director, Jamie Lloyd, has chosen to set the play 50 years hence, in an independent Scottish dystopia where the oil and money have run out, and ecological disaster has struck. “You won’t have everybody with earpieces looking at iPads,” McAvoy promises. “You’ve got to set it in a world where people believe in magic, omens and superstition, a world that’s become feral again.” And don’t expect this Lady M to greet Duncan in an off-the-shoulder frock.
The production has been put together at such a rip-roaring pace that, aside from one brief encounter at the Baftas, the two leads first met in the rehearsal room. “We literally walked in,” Foy recalls, “and looked at a model of the set, then James just held my hand and said, ‘Shall we do this, then?’” They seem to have a natural rapport: Foy supplies the wry asides, McAvoy foams with four-letter words and enthusiasm. But it’s only in this conversation that they realise both first came across the play at school.
Oddly, neither can remember the names of the performers in their own roles when they both saw the play — Foy in the West End, McAvoy in Leith. “I remember being very high up, and it was a black stage,” Foy says. “Other than that, I was probably eating Maltesers and not paying much attention.” McAvoy does vividly recall a visit to his school in Glasgow by the actor David Hayman, who in the 1970s had been a cross-gender Lady Macbeth at the Citizens. “That was the first time I really became aware of the idea of acting as something somebody might be able to do one day.”
It doesn’t really show in any of her roles to date, but Foy in person is extremely funny — a Rosalind in waiting. Yet she never considered herself as a potential Shakespearean. “I just thought, ‘I will never be able to play any of those parts.’ I think that’s because I was putting a block in my head.” Her only period immersion of note to date was playing the title role in the BBC’s Little Dorrit. Fearing it was a cliché, she has always avoided “Out, damned spot” as an audition piece. “But I hadn’t really worked for a quite a while, and I was getting a bit bored, so I thought I’d prepare a part — ‘Maybe I’ll just do Lady Macbeth.’ Then I got a call from my agent, who said, ‘You’re going to run a mile. It’s Macbeth.’”
McAvoy, on the other hand, has strategically reeled in the role. The spur was a BBC series that updated half a dozen of the plays. In the version of Macbeth by Peter Moffat, he played the lead, at 25, opposite Keeley Hawes. “That made me think, it’s interesting having a young Macbeth, because what you get is him and Lady Macbeth throwing away their future.” At that point, he went as far as to steer clear of the play, to avoid being “bound into not doing something because I’m worried that somebody else made a similar choice”. He and Lloyd had the initial conversation about taking on Macbeth on the first night of McAvoy’s most recent theatre job, Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain.
Though less of a name to trumpet in the marketing campaign, Foy feels like astute casting. Her characters in series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise have been, in her words, “sulky or angry or petulant”. This is an actress who is quick to leap to Lady Macbeth’s defence. “Why does everyone think she’s evil? My approach to every character is, you essentially want to understand. They always have something they are fighting against. Because James and I are younger, our ideas are relevant to our lives. They have lost a baby, and that’s the catalyst for everything.”
Aside from its wet-behind-the-ears protagonists, the other novelty, at least for theatregoers south of the border, is that this is a genuinely Scottish Macbeth. Last year, Alan Cumming went native to play every role in the National Theatre of Scotland’s asylum-set rendition, but the West End’s Macbeths — Stewart, Rufus Sewell, Sean Bean, Jonathan Slinger — have all been Sassenachs. “If you’re English, then fine, do it in an English accent,” McAvoy says. “It’s written for an English accent. But I am Scottish, so it would seem perverse not to tap into that.”
Shakespeare’s present to England’s new Scottish king materialised just as the first thoughts of a union were taking shape. The British Museum exhibition included designs commissioned by James I/VI in 1604 for a prototype Union Jack, merging the saltire with the cross of St George. Now the union is facing potential dissolution. Not that one of Scotland’s two or three most famous actors will go anywhere near that can of worms. Indeed, he is adamant that the play isn’t about Scotland at all.
“This play is about Scotland as much as Romeo and Juliet is about Italy,” McAvoy insists. “If it was about the future of Scotland, if it was about what it is to be Scottish, then that’s different. But it’s not a play that’s examining the Scottish condition. It’s just a story inspired by history that was designed as a present for James I. What is great about Shakespeare is that he suggests we’re all bloodthirsty and obsessively superstitious. But you write something so true and honest and compelling that it must have gone down rather well.”
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, until Apr 27