In BlogThe Lowry

The National Theatre, creators of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, bring this epic Shakespearean production of Macbeth to The Lowry Theatre following a sold out run in London. 

We spoke to actor Michael Nardone, starring as Macbeth, ahead of the show.

How would you sum up this version of Macbeth?

The most obvious thing that makes it unique is the edit the creative team have done. If you’ve seen the play before or are studying it you’ll notice that there are textural differences. It’s been condensed to the absolute nub or core of the story. It should therefore be very accessible and very clear to everyone. Because of that I think it will be superbly engaging.

Michael Nardone (Macbeth) with Evelyn Roberts, Elizabeth Chan & Olivia Sweeney (Witches) Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

How do you feel it will resonate for contemporary audiences?

We’re living in a period where, not just here but in other parts of the world, there’s so much division within society that it’s very possible some kind of civil unrest could happen. If it did, how quickly would our country descend into abject chaos - if, for example, the National Grid went down or we lost the internet, if our police forces lost control of the streets and so forth? Within probably three to four weeks we’d be living in a very different place. There’d be no law and order as such, there’d be no structure of rule, there’d be no delegation, and factions and militias would erupt here, there and everywhere and it would become a fight for survival and to protect what you have.

How is that illustrated in the staging of this production?

It’s contemporary but set a short while in the future and it asks what the world would be like in that scenario. It would be a country that’s unknown to us, where you’d have to choose a side, you’d have to protect yourself, and you’d be scavenging and surviving any way you can. It doesn’t take long and we’ve seen it before. I was young in the 70s when we had the three-day week and it was a period where there was no electricity and things did go down. There was no internet or mobile phones at the time, of course, but the Army were coming in with the Green Goddesses and taking over public services and all that - and that was not that long after we were recovering from having been victorious in a world war. Within 30 years suddenly there we were with no electricity again. This country has had brushes with it and you can see how things can degrade and dissolve, like in the Balkans in 1998 where overnight everything collapsed. The way the world is at the moment, these situations are never that far away.

The company of the Macbeth UK and Ireland, Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

What’s your approach to a character who has been played so many times before?

Without sounding pretentious, you make it your own by being yourself because every other Macbeth that came before or every other actor who’s played Macbeth before isn’t me. All the baggage that I carry, all of my own experiences and everything that’s happened to me in my life - that’s the weight that I bring to this. Also, you have to look at it in terms of the version you’re doing. Having the narrative paired down for you, there’s a much more readily identifiable structure and trajectory to the characters. What I see in Macbeth is a very real person - a real person who, by course of circumstances and the situations he finds himself in, has real dilemmas. He’s a relative to the king and he’s extremely loyal; to me he’s the epitome of loyalty when this play begins and he very bravely puts himself out there on behalf of his king. He is tested. And it’s a very interesting thing that Shakespeare does where he tests morality. At various times in our lives each and every one of us, since the dawn of time, has had our morality tested to one extent or another. With Macbeth it’s this; how does a man who is in an extremely loving relationship, tinged with sadness from the past because of the loss of children and such things, react when he’s tempted with this idea from a metaphysical source? How does he retain his sense of person and how does he keep his relationship? That to me is the real tragedy here, that this is a loving relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that gets broken over a moral decision.

What challenge does the play present to you as an actor?

The challenge is how to play a real man who is very idiosyncratic in his being. It’s about bringing other things to that which some actors might not. I can relate to Macbeth in that I can see the light and the shade. Obviously I’m not a soldier, I’m an actor, but I understand that thing of going out and doing what you have to do to hang on. Doing what you have to do to earn a living and being away from your family for long periods is tough and you can bring all that to it, when Macbeth returns home for the first time after a period away campaigning for example. There should be a very human, electrical impulse happening there, that element of longing and desire. It’s how I feel when I’m away; you’re looking forward to going home. There’s also a softness and a humanity to the man. [Laughs] I’ve never personally been tempted by a witch so I don’t know how that goes, but we have to mark ourselves by how we behave, how we judge people, how we deal with situations and how we have to be patient in our society. There’s an element of all that within Macbeth but it gets corrupted. His temperament and his level-headedness get corrupted and it degrades his path and his course of thinking. You can see how easily that could happen. We can easily get irritated on the tube or on an escalator, but it’s also easy to step back and go ‘It’s alright, it doesn’t cost me anything to let this person pass’. It’s within us to rear up and be tested like that.

Has Macbeth always been on your wish-list of roles?

You have aspirations and ambitions but they have to be put to the side when you have a family and you need to work, and if the chance comes then the chance comes. Even if it’s on your wish-list the opportunity has to arise. This literally came out of the blue and of course this role is on the radar because there are certain characters within the canon of Shakespeare that I would never get to play, but there are some that I might - and this is one of the latter. Given the opportunity and the fact that I’m still at an age where I could get away with it, it’d be crazy not to be able to say that you’d played it.

You’ve worked with director Rufus Norris before. How would you describe the collaboration?

Rufus is great. I worked with him in 2003 at The Young Vic on Peribanez and that was a similar play because it deals with themes of honour, morality, purity, humanity and all those things. There’s a similar vibe to Macbeth as in that Peribanez I played a hard-working, ordinary bloke and the production itself is similar in having a big cast, a lot of music, a big set with bridges and two-level structures with stairs. Rufus wants an honesty and truthfulness in the work as part of a bigger theatrical event. That’s his style and when I went to see the production at the National Theatre I thought ‘I can see Rufus all over this’ so when he asked if I would do it of course I said yes.

Rufus Norris (Director), Reuben Johnson (Doctor), Michael Nardone (Macbeth) Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

With a role like this is there any research needed?

You could go away and do tons of research. You could read the Holinshed stuff, most of which is inaccurate. You could go back and look at the chronicles of the real king Macbeth who was around in the 11th century and was on the throne for 20-odd years round about 1040 or 1050, but of course he’s a very different type of king. In fact I feel a bit sorry for that guy because his reputation has been severely maligned. It’s most unfortunate that a Jacobean playwright would do that, but he did tarnish the reputation of a very good monarch. A lot of people don’t know this but the real Macbeth actually went on a pilgrimage to Rome. He had an audience with the Pope and he was a very pious man who was interested in peace and equilibrium in the kingdom and did everything he could to make that happen - unlike this guy.

You could also look at what was happening in 1606. Scotland had a monarch, James VI, who was obsessed with witches. He wrote his famous book Daemonologie, by circumstance he becomes James I of England as well as James VI of Scotland and then Shakespeare writes a play about a king obsessed with witches. You could have a look at what was happening socially at the time and what might have inspired him to write it, but ultimately this is a work of fiction and it’s about what you bring to what’s written on that page. What I haven’t done is go off and watch loads of other people’s Macbeths because I’m only concerned with this version. I wanted to buy into Rufus’s world, which I think is a great version of Macbeth. It’s a great vision that puts this play in a very pertinent place.

What do you see as the importance of taking productions around the country?

It’s completely essential. For audiences who have never been to see a National Theatre production it’s the chance to see one outside of London and those who have been to the South Bank or seen an NT Live broadcast are hungry for more. There’s also the education element, which of course is very important. This is a fantastic version for young people who are studying the play to see because it’s different from what they’re probably reading in class and it’s going to provoke discussion in school and encourage them to discuss this play in an analytical manner, which they might not usually get the chance to do.

Macbeth is at The Lowry from Sat 29 Sept – 6 October 2018.

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