Interview: Ross McGregor, Arrows & Traps

Earlier this year, they took on Tolstoy, condensing the epic novel Anna Karenina into a gripping three hours, and somehow making the story manageable without losing any of its complexity or intensity. And for their sixth production, Arrows & Traps are returning to their Shakespearean roots with Macbeth, which runs from 14th June to 9th July at New Wimbledon Studio, and opens the company’s ‘Broken Crown’ season.

Arrows and Traps, Macbeth

The Macbeth cast reunites actors who’ve worked on previous productions – among them David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann (Anna Karenina), Jean Apps (The Taming of the Shrew) and Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus) – and introduces several new members of the company. Director Ross McGregor welcomes this mix of old and new faces:

“We’re one of the few operating rep companies in the fringe, in that we have a base of returning actors that we use in every show. It’s delightful to have actors from last year’s Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and this year’s Anna Karenina coming back to work on Macbeth alongside our new blood. This is great for me as a director as it builds a shorthand in rehearsal, but it also gives actors just starting out in their careers a home to come back to hone their craft on some classic drama. They know that there’s always a place for them in Arrows & Traps, and for me there’s no greater honour or compliment than when an actor asks to work with you again. This may seem like a cliché, but six shows in, it does feel like a little theatre family.”

In addition, the cast will work once again with Offie-nominated Movement Director Will Pinchin, who’s been a member of the creative team on all of Arrows & Traps’ previous productions. “It’s an honour to have Will back for a sixth time, working with the witches and ghosts for the show; he’s producing some incredible work in rehearsal. I’ve known Will for almost seven years, and I’d never consider directing a show without him now. We work well as a pair, he sees things I don’t, and I can structure his creative mania – there’s very little wasted time in rehearsal because each of us has a good sense of what the other wants to do. He’s also a new father, so the fact that he can still devote time to the company when he should be fast asleep is a testament to his generosity.”

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

Following on from last year’s gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, this version of Macbeth is a gender equal production – in fact, in an intriguing twist, McGregor’s cast includes more women than men. “Macbeth is normally a bit of a sausage fest in terms of casting, so it’s great to be able to offer so many roles to female actors. Both Duncan and Banquo have been made into female roles, and we’re loving the new opportunities and relationship impacts that these changes are making. For example, in our version, Banquo is a mother. Lady Macbeth has lost her child. How does that impact the relationship between the two women? Is there more of a connection between Banquo and Macbeth than just friends? Exactly who is jealous of whom?

“Duncan also has been opened up in so many interesting ways. She has that Margaret Thatcher feel to her: a bold, brave women in a cabinet of men who want her dead. Plus the thought of murdering Duncan is made even more harrowing if it’s an elderly woman in her bed. I was watching rehearsal a few days ago and was struck by the fact that the murder of Banquo is almost an entirely female staged spectacle of combat, and it’s a refreshing thing to be staging, even in an age when we’ve seen it all. I personally think it’s been a boys’ club for long enough. Give a girl a dagger.”

So what can audiences expect from this new version of a well known play? “Arrows & Traps has always been about making commercial entertainment that doesn’t lose its intelligence. I want to make shows that sell (name a theatre director that doesn’t), plays that people will have heard of, but that don’t lose their intellect or beauty for the sake of making it easier or shorter.

“I’m always struck by a common response I hear from people when asked if they go to the theatre. So many people say “I should. I should go more.” Like it’s the dentist. Like watching Hamlet is the theatrical equivalent of a root canal. Why is intelligent classic theatre seen as a dry duty for most people? It shouldn’t be. If Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiters and prostitutes and merchants all selling their wares in the theatre, his lines had to grab their attention. They had to fly. It’s our company goal to make commercial theatre that is as intelligent as it is entertaining. It’s got to be a live event. It’s got to be exciting. And if it’s Shakespeare and it’s done well, you’ve got to understand what they’re all saying. My hope is that Macbeth strikes this balance – both serving the beautiful text as well as being a rollercoaster ride.

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

“I also wanted to make a genuinely frightening production of the play, because for me it’s all about fear. A standard GCSE answer is that Macbeth is all about ambition, and whilst that’s true, the word ‘fear’ is mentioned more times in Macbeth than any other play in the canon. It’s the story of a man who literally unleashes fear into the world. It’s a story where people believe in ghosts and witches and damnation and spirits. This is not our world, this isn’t reality, it’s a different playing space, a place where Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Norman Bates live. A place where things go bump in the night, and all our worst nightmares come and sit down beside us whilst we’re having dinner.

“Olivier said that if you don’t believe in witches then there’s no point in doing Macbeth – and I think he’s right. I think you have to create a world where witches can feasibly exist and take the audience on a journey into the belly of the beast. It feels like a horror film to me. Full of jumps and bumps and frights and somewhere in the midst of the darkness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of desire. But then again, and this is the genius of Shakespeare, Macbeth is also about a couple on the verge of breakdown, and the lengths that two people will go to in order to save their marriage. So there’s a lot to love about the text, and everyone is operating in a shade of grey. I didn’t want there to be villains or clear cut baddies. I think in many ways the Macbeths are more likeable than the ‘heroes’ of the story, Macduff and Malcolm, even though they do despicable things. It’s really the great-great-great grandfather of House Of Cards.”

Book now to see Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio from 14th June to 9th July.

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