Originally written for The Stage.
Arriving at Jerwood Space to interview John Heffernan, I’m nervous about using the ‘M’ word. The actor is rehearsing to play Macbeth – He Who Must Not Be Named in theatrical circles. But Heffernan, chatty and affable from the moment he sits down, is quick to laugh away any superstitions around the role.
“When you’re working on it everything would take twice as long if you were constantly calling it the ‘Scottish Play’,” he reasons. “We made the decision quite early on: we’ve just got to say it, we’ve got to dive in.”
This production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin at the Young Vic, marks a welcome return to Shakespeare for Heffernan. It was the playwright who ignited the actor’s love for theatre: first via the television series The Animated Tales and then during Saturday matinees at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home, the Barbican. Later, as a teenager, Heffernan ushered during the summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching the likes of Samuel West and David Tennant tread the boards. “I’m going to sound like a complete anorak,” he warns, “but I think I’d seen all 37 [Shakespeare] plays by the time I was 19 or 20.”
It took a while, though, for Heffernan to pursue acting. Instead, his early aspiration was to be a theatre critic. “I just thought ‘what job will allow me to sit in the stalls all the time?’” he remembers. “I enjoyed writing and analysing, and I thought it would be a really blissful, happy job.” While at drama school, he even did a bit of reviewing under a pseudonym – “I thought ‘This is great, you get two free tickets, you get a free programme, you get a free drink in the interval’,” – before friends warned him off trying to combine acting and theatre criticism.
Photo: Tristram Kenton.