James McAvoy isn’t sleeping well. The last time he appeared on the London stage, playing Macbeth two years ago, he would wake every day at 2am or 3am and find it impossible to drift off again. Now, as he returns to the Trafalgar Studios to star in Peter Barnes’s antic 1968 satire The Ruling Class, the same thing is happening.
If anything, the demands of this role are even greater than those of the Thane of Cawdor. “Macbeth was more physical than any action movie I’ve done, so I didn’t think I’d have anything to worry about,” he says, rocking back on a chair in a deserted rehearsal room. “But this has turned out more physical still. Not violent – well, sometimes it’s violent… It’ll be a massive workout, really.”
When we meet, on a bone-cold winter evening, McAvoy, 35, has been in rehearsals for a month. He looks lean and a little frayed, grey flecks in his hair. This is the first time Barnes’s play has been revived since it played the West End in 1969. The director Jamie Lloyd, who will shortly spring into the rehearsal room, rediscovered it in an anthology of Sixties plays. There was also a 1972 film version, in which Peter O’Toole took the starring role, but both Lloyd and McAvoy have tried to avoid it.
“I play football sometimes with Patrick Marber and I told him that I was doing The Ruling Class,” says McAvoy, “and he said that he’d played Jack Gurney, my part, when he was at university, when he was at Oxbridge or wherever he was. It seems that loads of drama students maybe do it, but it seems to be that professionally people are scared of doing it. But it’s the right time to tell it now.”
Barnes’s play is a high-spirited swirl of Sixties subversiveness, an attack on the Establishment in all its forms: aristocracy, public schools, the Church, the Army. After an epiphany at a public urinal in East Acton, Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, has come to believe he is Jesus Christ: “When I pray to Him,” he explains, “I find I’m talking to myself.” He opens the play preaching for love and understanding, but ends it espousing the virtues of punishment and brute force – a transformation that makes him far more acceptable to the class to which he belongs. If it’s very much of its time – the age of sleazy entitlement, of Profumo and Lord Lucan – its attack on elites of any kind still resonates.
Indeed, in election year, it’s a provocative piece of programming, especially as it’ll play at Trafalgar Studios, a theatre that stands on Whitehall itself. That’s the director’s intent: although he has a gentle manner, Jamie Lloyd is a theatrical agitator. Dressed in a blue Mao jacket, shaved of head but full of beard, the 34-year-old looks like a revolutionary flown in from Moscow via Shoreditch. On his right forearm there is a tangle of tattoos, the most prominent of which is the head of William Shakespeare.
“The truth is that the class war is back,” says Lloyd, as the three of us sit huddled around a heater. “That’s what it feels like. That’s why it’s a play for today. For the moment when John Major said this is a classless society, you couldn’t really do this play. It wouldn’t have its pertinence, and you couldn’t do it under New Labour. Culturally as well we’re obsessed with Downton Abbey and there’s the Tatler documentary on at the same time as Made in Chelsea and Made in Essex [sic] and there’s that documentary series on Channel 4 about the working classes…”
“Oh, Benefits Street, or something,” says McAvoy. “Yeah, there’s all that,” says Lloyd. “But also it feels like the divide between the rich and the poor is growing, and that social mobility is less, and therefore the moment to revive this play is now. Because you’re seeing an elite cling on to power.”
Do they expect to see their neighbours from up the road at the play? “We’ve had George Osborne and Boris and all the rest of them come and have a look [at shows here],” says Lloyd. “They’ll be sat next to some kids off a council estate, and it’ll be fascinating to see what fisticuffs may ensue.” “Yeah, they’ll just face it out,” says McAvoy. “They will.”
If this all makes the play sound heavy and very political, that’s only half the story: it’s also extremely funny and anarchic. Drawing-room comedy gives way to scenes of Jacobean horror; and there are song-and-dance routines. “It’s the hardest play I’ve ever done,” says McAvoy. Lloyd: “The one minute you’re laughing and it’s heightened, almost like saucy sex farce, and then it’s like this really, like, disturbingly… visceral horror.”
Lloyd directed McAvoy in the 2013 production of Macbeth, which was so bloody that some spectators fainted during the show. They don’t imagine that the same will happen here, but they do hope to strike a blow against the cosy, reassuring assumptions of traditional theatreland. Part of that involves trying to encourage a different sort of audience to turn up by selling cheap tickets, many of which are sold via an outreach programme that’s aimed towards students at school and first-time theatregoers.
“We could vastly inflate the ticket prices, as often happens when there is a major actor of huge profile, like James,” says Lloyd. “We could recoup very, very quickly by charging £120, £140 a ticket” – “I know, I know,” murmurs McAvoy, almost wistfully – “and we’d be very rich off a 12-week run. And that’s the point, that we’ve not done that, and both you and I are not doing it for those reasons.” As it is, Lloyd expects the whole season (which also included productions of Richard III, of which more later, and East Is East) to run at a loss.
Neither McAvoy nor Lloyd grew up going to the theatre. McAvoy, who was brought up by his grandparents on a Glasgow council estate, had never seen a professional production of a play before he went to drama school. Lloyd grew up in Poole; his father was a truck driver and his mother owned a fancy-dress shop. The first major play that he directed, at the Sheffield Crucible in 2006, was Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, which also happened to be the first Pinter play he’d read.
“It’s hilarious how many directors say, oh, yes, the great turning point was when I was 10 and I saw Derek Jacobi in whatever,” says Lloyd. “?‘I saw Larry attempting Hamlet,’?” booms McAvoy in a fruity voice, “?‘the least said about that the better. Valiant attempt.’?” For Lloyd, theatre was about participation, borrowing clothes from his mother’s shop and putting on entertainments. “Having fun, basically,” he says. “And it’s that level of fun and kind of inventiveness that I hope is still in the rehearsal room and the productions we do.”
Both men have been stung by criticisms of their theatre work. Lloyd’s production of Richard III, with Martin “Bilbo Baggins” Freeman in the title role, was attacked for attracting the “wrong sort” of audience, specifically Hobbit fangirls. The director is incredulous about the furore. “No one screamed or threw themselves at Martin Freeman’s feet. It genuinely never ever happened, and it was pure snobbery. It was people saying theatre shouldn’t be for teenagers. And even Maureen Lipman, bizarrely, said they’re aiming for people who have wires in their ears all day! As if listening to your iPod were…”
“Jonathan Miller had a go at me in Macbeth,” says McAvoy. Lloyd: “Oh what, for being famous?” McAvoy: “He was just like, basically, you’re bringing the tone down, something like that. And I sent him a letter and I said, please come along and see the play, I think you should see the work before you criticise it.”
For McAvoy, his work on the stage complements – or maybe even outranks – his work in film, where he’s best known for his role as Prof Charles Xavier in the X-Men series. There are movies he’s clearly proud of – Filth (2013), for example, an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel in which McAvoy played a deranged Edinburgh detective – but he bemoans the lack of depth in many of the scripts he reads. His next big-screen appearance will be in Victor Frankenstein, playing the title role opposite Daniel Radcliffe as his assistant, Igor. “If I thought I was analytical about script, James McAvoy is something else,” said Radcliffe when I interviewed him last year. “But in such an amazing way, in such a precise and practical and helpful way.”
“Film directors generally don’t know what they’re talking about acting-wise,” says McAvoy. “The majority of directors I’ve worked with have come up through a technical background, and then they suddenly find themselves in charge of probably the most important commodity on any film set, which is still your actors. And they go, like, I just want it to be good-er. Just be funnier? And good-er.”
This isn’t a problem when McAvoy works with Lloyd; the pair seem to animate each other intellectually, only just falling short of finishing each other’s sentences. “Anne-Marie’s always really jealous of it,” says McAvoy of his wife, the actress Anne-Marie Duff. “That we’ve got a relationship. She’s like, I wish I had that…”
Not that the process is always a thing of unmitigated joy. “I f—— hate rehearsals!” says McAvoy. “But my wife and Benedict [Cumberbatch] go on like you wouldnae believe about rehearsals. I’m, like, you guys just stay and get off with each other at rehearsals, I’ll back out.”
People seem to find the rehearsal room liberating, with the freedom to fail, I say… “Whereas I’m like no! I failed!” says McAvoy. Lloyd: “You do get very angry with yourself…”
Lloyd and McAvoy embrace this discomfort. “I hope that theatre is more than just coming along for a jolly nice night, something you do just before you go and have dinner,” says Lloyd. “I’ve been thinking about this quote from Nureyev, that expresses what I’ve been trying to articulate for the last five or six years,” says McAvoy. “It’s that people don’t come to see us dance, they come to see our fear. And they don’t come to see us act, they don’t come to even see the story, they come to see something dangerous.”