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CGI interior from Upper Gallery captioned, designs by Allies + Morrison

Interview with actress Sarah MacRae

28 December 2013 Charlie Kenber

“You have three seconds where if you manage to get their hands off you you’re still fine, then the next three seconds you start to have brain damage…”

The New Year will see the opening of the newest – and yet also the oldest – theatre in London. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modelled on Jacobean theatre spaces, and especially the Blackfriars Theatre, will be thrown open to the public in an ambitious project by Shakespeare’s Globe. Fittingly, the Playhouse’s first production will be John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, which premiered at the Blackfriars back in 1613.

We caught up with actress Sarah MacRae, playing Cariola, who has become something of a recognisable face at the Globe, having performed there three times over the past 18 months…

London Calling: What drew you to the production? Was it the large number of deaths?

Sarah MacRae: That was definitely part of it! There are a lot of family relationships going on and a lot of betrayal. It’s a good play for January, maybe not so good for Christmas!

It’s an incredible play, and it’s an incredible central female character, which is always – especially in classical theatre – a massive bonus. Normally they have three-to-one men to women, so that’s kind of incredible.

The new theatre as well is so much a part of it. It’s so exciting to see a production of that play in the theatre where it would have been performed originally.

LC: To put it mildly then it’s not the most light-hearted play. Who do you think it appeals to?

SM: I think there’s probably something in it for everyone. The atmosphere of this new production – the new theatre and being candlelit – is really going to help.

It starts off and the Duchess is this amazing character. She’s in control and powerful. Then you gradually see how people around her affect her. A lot of people do things to her, which is quite interesting. You follow her journey. Yes it is quite gory, so if you like that anyway you’ll love it, but I think there’s a lot in there for everyone.

LC: Is it tricky performing in candlelight?

SM: Yes, just don’t set your hair on fire that’s the main thing! The actors become their own lighting designers: the person who has the most light in a scene ends up having a bit more control, because you can kind of go “ah it’s my moment, spotlight on me”. Also you can light or not light other characters depending on what else is going on. So it’s kind of like another play going on it terms of that, because whoever has the most power has the most light.

The general atmosphere of being candlelit for the darker, gloomy scenes will really help, but also when it’s bright it’s quite amazing.

LC: So are you carrying the candles?

SM: There will be fixed ones, and there’s candelabras above the stage, but we’ll also be carrying our own.

LC: Your death has got to be a dramatic highlight: how has it been choreographing it?

SM: We were doing that this morning. We had the fight director in yesterday who was talking us through what actually happens to the body when you’re strangled. It’s quite interesting stuff: you have three seconds. It kind of goes green, amber, red. You have three seconds where if you manage to get their hands off you you’re still fine, then the next three seconds you start to have brain damage, and then the final three that’s you done. You’re unconscious and your body gives up. So it’s quick! And I’m biting and scratching as well, so I’m really fighting it, which is quite fun to play!

LC: You’ve done lots of shows at the Globe recently. Has that come about intentionally? It must be an amazing space to perform in!

SM: Absolutely, it really is. I did The Taming of the Shrew first which I just loved. It’s so different to other theatres and I think it’s so good for the audience. The yard spaces are the best seats. You’re so involved, and where else in London can you go and see shows like this for five pounds? It’s amazing.

So to come back and do something very different in A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year was just amazing. So much of that play is about the weather and the atmosphere and all that sort of stuff, it makes more sense when you can feel the wind. It’s just the most incredible space, and I’ve been really lucky. It feels like a second drama school being here for a year.

LC: Is it odd then going into a space without a yard? Do you lose that engagement and response?

SM: Yes, exactly. It’s much more intimate: partly because it’s 350 seats rather than 1,500, but also because the way the space is formed is completely different. You feel very close to everyone in the audience. Whereas you can throw stuff out in the Globe (and you have to to reach the people furthest away), in this one it feels much more filmic, because you can be much more minimal. It’s great because you don’t have to project too much, but also you’ve got to be aware that too much can be a bit overwhelming for the audience.

LC: How’s the new theatre shaping up?

SM: It’s very very beautiful, it really is. On the ceiling there’s a mural which is just gorgeous…and then the candles and the wood as well. It looks very different depending on the lighting state.

I know they’re doing other things in the first season: they’ve got a comedy thing, and they’ve got lots of concerts, so I think it will be great for all different types of stuff as well as the plays.

The Duchess of Malfi plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from the 9th January until 16th February. Tickets from £10, available here.

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