Merlin star Alexander Vlahos speaks to Hypable about his role as Malcolm in the upcoming Kenneth Branagh/Rob Ashford production of Macbeth.
Alex Vlahos has been keeping busy since the series finale of Merlin in December 2012.
His current venture is a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which will be performed at the Manchester International Festival from July 5-20. The play is helmed by Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford, with Branagh also playing the title role.
Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most tragic and haunting plays. It depicts the rise and fall of a troubled Scottish nobleman and his power-hungry wife, who are slowly consumed by their own ambition.
Doctor Who actress Alex Kingston will be taking on the iconic role of Lady Macbeth, while Ray Fearon is playing Macduff. Vlahos will be playing King Duncan (John Shrapnel)’s son, Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland.
If you’re not one of the lucky few who has been able to secure tickets for this coveted performance, don’t worry: National Theatre Live has announced that the play will be screened in cinemas across the globe from July 20.
In this interview, Hypable speaks to Alexander Vlahos about his role in the production, and how Branagh and Ashford are working to put a unique spin on the tried classic.
Also read the first part of our interview with Vlahos, where he discusses Merlin, Dorian Gray and those intriguing Doctor Who rumours.
‘Macbeth’ is ‘exciting and a little bit daunting’
Hypable: Let’s begin by talking about Macbeth because that’s pretty huge and exciting! How did you get involved with it?
Alexander Vlahos: Through the normal way, auditioning and stuff. They got me in for the first round meeting, and it just sort of went from there. I only went in for Malcolm, and I found out within two weeks that I got it. And it’s incredibly exciting… and a little bit daunting.
Even though Malcolm isn’t one of the leads, I imagine you must have spent a lot of time preparing to take on Shakespeare…
Yeah, well, I’ve only ever done four plays since leaving drama school and two of them have been Shakespeare works, so I’ve had a bit of experience with it. I mean, you know, as much as you can, but everyone has a different way of approaching it. The text is so detailed and intrinsic, and Shakespeare gives you this gift on the page, and then it’s about your way of decoding and working your way through it.
Malcolm is an amazing part and he carries such a lot of weight towards the latter half of the play. He sort of goes into hiding for a bit after his dad gets killed, which is about halfway through the play, and then leaves the play and goes into hiding in England. So I get a little bit of a break, which is nice, I get a little hour off stage to sit in my dressing room and chill.
But no, in the last 45 minutes of the play, Malcolm obviously becomes quite integral, as he’s the rightful heir to the throne. So yeah, I’m having lots of fun playing with him, playing around with the character.
Can you talk about the setting of the play? It’s very unique.
Yeah, the way we’re setting the play is in a church, a deconsecrated church in Manchester. So if you’re doing quite a bloody and blasphemous play in a church, it already has weight behind it. This is an actual church, that – even though it’s deconsecrated – has had countless years, hundreds of years of prayer, in that building. Any time you walk into a godly place or a holy place the walls, you know, you get a sense of history.
And we’re doing Macbeth in this place, so the idea of toying with that, toying with good and evil… And then for me, what’s really interesting is how actually good Malcolm is. How godly he is, what he represents in this play. Cause once Macbeth turns into that evilness, Malcolm is the only hope for Scotland.
So I’m enjoying the idea of him being quite godly and Christian-like in the play, and we’re exploring all that sort of stuff. But no, it’s fun, it’s really fun.
Working with Branagh and Ashford: ‘Intriguing and incredibly rewarding’
What is it like working with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford as the directing team?
[Laughs] It is… very intriguing, and also incredibly rewarding. I’ve never worked in a play where two people are at the helm, where two people are controlling the work. It’s always only been one person, a male or a female director, so to have two people at the helm is… intriguing, yeah.
When I initially got the part, I was very intrigued by the idea of how that would work in a rehearsal room, having two figureheads in a room and how the balance and the relationship between them two would work… and how that would help us inform us as actors, you know, to collaborate together. But so far it’s been incredibly rewarding, and like I said, very intriguing.
Rob, coming from a choreographer background – also a very good director, but coming from a choreographer background – is working through the blocking and the schematics of the play. Then you’ve got Ken there, who’s a Shakespeare god within himself, and he’s working on the text. And it’s the marriage of the two that seems to be working wonders for all of us, especially for me. Having two people to go to when you’re looking for advice is better than one, you know.
As a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, I imagine you must be excited to work with Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth?
Yeah, working with Alex is a joy, actually. She’s amazing. And from the get-go, seeing Ken and Alex together, the chemistry between them is electric. I remember the first week of rehearsals, the pair of them were completely off book. They’d completely known their lines. No, not even the first week, about the second day, they knew everything!
So the pair of them together, grabbing this play like a bull by the horns and dragging it through to Manchester, are setting the bar extremely high. And expecting everyone to come and meet them, you know, go with them to that level. So it’s amazing to watch.
Unfortunately I don’t have any scenes with her, and I barely have any scenes with Ken. Malcolm seems to be the person that seems to avoid all this. [Laughs] But it’s fascinating to watch, and I try and grab every moment I can in the rehearsal room to watch them together.
The legacy of ‘Macbeth’: It ‘comes with so much baggage’
Lady Macbeth is such an iconic character, too, it’s a great role.
Yeah, definitely. But that’s the thing with Macbeth I guess, and Lady Macbeth… they come with so much baggage, so many preconceived ideas from the audience. People who haven’t even seen Macbeth know about Lady Macbeth, and they know the moment, all the moments in the play.
My mum’s never seen it, but she was like, “Oh god, Lady Macbeth, that’s a good part isn’t it?” It’s that weird thing that comes with doing well-known Shakespeare works is that, like I said, it comes with a preconceived idea.
That’s true! We actually put on ‘Macbeth’ on once at school…
Awesome! And again, it’s funny because Macbeth seems to be one of the plays that get performed at schools a lot, or is a textbook for English Literature or for Drama. Especially over here in England, some school will be doing it for GCSEs or A-Levels, so again people come at it with a textual view of the play, with that baggage thing I was talking to you about, what they think it should be.
It’s such a good play though, it’s one of my favourites.
Is it really? Why?
Well… mainly just because I did it.
Hahaha because you did it, you have no reasons? “No it’s my favourite play because I did it, I was Macduff, deal with it.” [Laughs.] But it’s strange though, to be fair I hadn’t really looked at Macbeth in a joyful way before, I never thought ‘Oh, this is a great play…’
It’s not one of the fun ones, like ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
Yeah. And my favourite plays are Hamlet and Henry V, sort of being the history plays, rather than this. But obviously then doing the work you end up becoming engrossed in what you’re doing and end up caring for all the characters and stuff like that.
Doing musicals ‘would be more work than joy’
So has doing this play whetted your appetite for theatre, or do you see yourself drifting more towards TV and film?
Hmm that’s a tricky one, I don’t know. I think basically my desire for the back of Merlin was to take things slow, I’ve done 10 months of TV work, you know… I think I’ve told you this story before, where I had just finished Privates and started Merlin the weekend after – I had a two-day turnaround after doing two months in Ireland filming Privates, and I literally started Merlin the week after.
And having that from January up until November when we finished Merlin, doing 10 months of television work, I think my head was a bit fried. And people kept asking me, and I did go up for auditions, for big things and things I didn’t particularly like or fancied … but then for this to come around, it seemed right.
But whether to go on from this now and continue to do more theatre, or to go back into telly… I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. It all depends on what becomes available, you know? Whatever medium you’re working in you sort of get the bite for that particular one, so if you’re working in television you sort of go oh yeah, I’d like to continue working in television, and then if you get a job in theatre you go oh yeah, I’d love to do another play. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, absolutely. Would you ever do musicals?
[Laughs] Ummm… you know what, that was literally the first thing I said to my agent, the agent that’d just signed me when I graduated from drama school, and she said, “Just let me know now if there’s anything you do not want to do,” and I immediately went, “Musicals!” before she’d even finished her sentence. “Musicals, do not put me up for them!”
I mean I enjoy singing, I can sing, it’s just something that… for some reason in my head the filter between doing a musical and acting are massively apart, whereas for some people they’re very close together. Does that make sense? For me, it would be more work than joy, and I do acting because it’s something that I love, it’s something that I enjoy thoroughly. And the thought of doing a musical would be that it’s a lot of work. [Laughs] A lot of extra work.
Finally, tell me about the live streaming of ‘Macbeth’ which was just announced.
Well, we open July 5 with Macbeth, and then we run up until the end of the month. And then it’s gonna be recorded live as part of the National Theatre Live scheme, and it’s going to be shown to a whole load of cinemas around the world. LA, South Africa, France and Germany and the UK and all that sort of stuff, so that’s exciting. A bonus, you know?
Good luck with that!
Read part 1 of our Alexander Vlahos interview for the actor’s thoughts on the Merlin fan base, the next Doctor Who and much more.