Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle Are Bringing an ‘Apocalyptic’ Take on ‘Macbeth’ to London

On the eve of her London stage debut, Saoirse Ronan and her co-star, James McArdle, tell Hayley Maitland about the method behind the madness

9/23/2021 9:05:00 AM

On the eve of her London stage debut, Saoirse Ronan and her co-star, James McArdle, tell Hayley Maitland about the method behind the madness

On the eve of her London stage debut, Saoirse Ronan and her co-star, James McArdle, tell Hayley Maitland about the method behind the madness.

.It’s a mid-August afternoon on London’s Hackney Marshes, and four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan is darting through the grass, with fellow actor James McArdle close behind her. In the middle of their BritishVogueshoot, the clear weather has suddenly given way to a downpour—with peals of thunder rumbling in the distance—and the crew has been forced to take refuge.

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If the “fair” and “foul” atmosphere is off for summer, it feels right for this moment: A few days after their shoot, the pair will begin rehearsals for Yaël Farber’s much-delayedMacbeththe rebirth of London theatre. “I’ve found it strangely moving going past the queues outside now that it’s open again, and that’s just for scaled-down productions,” Ronan confides in her Irish lilt, having found cover in an oar-lined room of the Lea Rowing Club, her blue eyes and elfin features more pronounced than on-screen. “When the theatre is finally at capacity, there will be so much goodwill in the audience. It will hardly even matter if a play is bad.”

There’s little chance of that withMacbeth. This is Farber’s first production since her critically acclaimedHamletat the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2018, which starred Ruth Negga as the Danish prince. And, as is so often the case with Shakespeare,Macbeth

feels almost terrifyingly pertinent to the current moment: a society populated by individuals who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy; tyrannical leaders blinded by ambition; a natural world distinctly out of sorts. (Farber isn’t the only one to sense its uncanny relevance to our post-lockdown present: Joel Coen’s cinematic take on The Scottish Play, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, will also premiere before the year is out.) “I feel like no work of theatre should be staged unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Farber later tells me. “And this is a work of art for a civilization on the precipice—spiritually, politically and environmentally.” In lieu of traditional sets and costumes, the Almeida’s staging will feel apocalyptic and outside time, with the three witches acting as the “custodians” of the evening. “Just like Macbeth, the audience will have an ‘appointment’ on the heath with the weird sisters.”

Refreshingly, Farber’s take will also place the relationship between the Macbeths at the heart of the story, with a number of their lines reassigned. It’s a marriage that Ronan and Glasgow-native McArdle, who are good friends (both belong to what Ronan calls a “big gang of Celts” in London), have dissected at length during the year and a half that the play has been in the works. “In every production we’ve seen, it’s the dynamic between the Macbeths that fascinates us,” says 32-year-old James. In person, he is quick-witted and mischievous, with a rugged charm that calls to mind a young Richard Burton. “This is a couple who are far more in love than Romeo and Juliet. They’ve been together for years, and have been through the death of a child. The play is about the tragedy of the Macbeths, not Macbeth alone.” “You’re rooting for them,” agrees Ronan. “They’re both kind of terrible, but you’re fascinated by their incredibly modern, liberated relationship.”

Ronan and McArdle’s paths first crossed while shooting Josie Rourke’sMary Queen of Scotsin 2017, which saw Ronan’s Mary Stuart square off with Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I. But it is Mary’s relationship with her half-brother, McArdle’s treacherous Earl of Moray, that Ronan considers the most important in the film. As in

Macbeth, both of them are “vying for power, which gave us a lot to play with,” she notes. The shoot delivered a range of bonding experiences; Ronan recalls her terror at doing a Scottish accent in front ofDoctor Who’s David Tennant (“Your accent is pure good,” McArdle reassures her in his own Scottish twang), while both dissolve into laughter at the memory of

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Line of Duty’s Martin Compston shooting for two weeks with a herd of less-than-cooperative Highland cows.So, when Kate Winslet personally tapped Ronan to “be her lover” in Francis Lee’sAmmonite(2021), a period drama set on the Jurassic Coast in the 1840s, Ronan called McArdle to tell him about the role of her character’s frigid Victorian husband, only to find out he’d already auditioned and landed the part. In turn, when Farber approached McArdle about doing

Macbeth, he immediately suggested Ronan be his co-star. “I got down on one knee and asked her to be my Lady Macbeth in the most romantic spot in Scotland: Leith,” he quips.“I feel like no work of theatre should be staged unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Farber says. “And this is a work of art for a civilization on the precipice—spiritually, politically and environmentally”

In spite of their clear close friendship, Ronan is “absolutely terrified” at the prospect of the production. While she did more than 150 performances on Broadway as Abigail Williams inThe Cruciblewith Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw, this marks her first performance on the London stage, not to mention her first foray into Shakespeare. “Doing theatre sharpens you so much as an actor. It requires a different stamina to film. It’s wonderful to be able to act in a medium that you’re comfortable in, but you do reach a point when you’ve been doing it for so long, you need a different angle to keep you stimulated.”

If that sounds a little world-weary for a 27-year-old, consider that the Bronx-born, Dublin-raised Ronan has been on sets since the age of nine—supervised by her beloved, no-nonsense “Mam.” She earned her first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in Joe Wright’s

Atonement(2007) at the age of 13. A best-actress nod followed in 2016, for her portrait of a young Irish immigrant in John Crowley’sBrooklyn, with her roles in mentor Greta Gerwig’sLady Bird(2017) andLittle Women(2019) taking her twice more around the awards circuit alongside her dear friend “Timmy” (Chalamet). Having now achieved the level of fame where public transport is a no-go, she opts to live as quietly as possible between Dublin, London, and the north of England, with her long-term boyfriend Jack Lowden, another Scottish actor.

In contrast, the Olivier-nominated McArdle has been a West End mainstay for more than a decade. A self-proclaimed “right wee show-off” given to performing speeches fromA Streetcar Named Desirein his family’s living room as a child, he snuck down to London to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) at the age of 17, only to botch his lines. Instead of getting on the bus home, defeated, he charmed his way past a secretary and back into the assessment room. One plummy director memorably called him a “cheeky little bastard,” but he still won a place.

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In the years since, McArdle has tackled some of the most formidable roles in the Western canon, from Chekhov’sPlatonovat the National in 2016 to James I in Rona Munro’sThe James Playsfor the National Theatre of Scotland in 2014. Just before COVID hit, he had completed a run as the lead in David Hare’s reimagining of

Peter Gynt, also at the National, which saw him onstage for three hours for each performance. It cemented his reputation as one of the West End’s most chameleonic actors—able to convey malevolence and relatability, lucidity and delusion in the space of an act.

But you’ll most likely know him from HBO’s hugely successfulMare of Easttown, in which he played murder suspect Deacon Mark Burton opposite Kate Winslet’s Detective Sheehan. Between that andAmmonite, “I feel like I’ve spent more time with Kate Winslet in the past few years than anyone else,” he says with a hoot. “She really, really makes me laugh. I turned 30 while filming

Ammonite, and everyone bought me properly nice gifts—Saoirse got me an actual fossil, and Kate gave me a box covered with photos of her and Leonardo DiCaprio, which plays ‘My Heart Will Go On’ when you open it.” (It now has pride of place on his mantelpiece.) Still, he’s yet to watch

Mare of Easttown. “I feel like me, my mum and my dad are the only people in the world who haven’t seen it,” he laughs. “They said to me the other day, ‘Everyone keeps telling us about thisHandmaids of Eastwick.’ And I thought, ‘God, is that the title?’”

In spite of his recent televisual coup, the stage is where his heart lies. Through the canal-facing windows of the rowing club’s lounge, the weather is beginning to clear and his mind has turned, once more, to rehearsal prep—although neither he nor Ronan can quite believe that

Macbeth’s opening night approaches at last. The pandemic casts a long shadow.“What really struck me while reading Yaël’s draft is the scene where Lady Macbeth is washing her hands,” Ronan says, referring to her fabled attempts to wash off the imaginary blood of her victims (“Out, damned spot!”). “In the past, there’s been a separation between me as an audience member and this character who’s giving into ‘madness.’ Now, we’ve all had the limits of our minds tested by the pandemic.” McArdle agrees. “What Yaël calls ‘the play’s descent into hell’ is accessible now in ways that it never was before, which on the one hand is depressing,” he says, thoughtfully, “but on the other, where better to find catharsis than at the theatre?”

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