Ahead of the Macbeth season, Jai Courtney tells us about turning into one of drama’s biggest tyrants.
How do you embody the character of Macbeth?
He’s a soldier first and foremost, and I think that side of him is the easiest to relate to on the way in, but we don’t get a lot of time to see it. We hear a lot about how handy he is on the battlefield, but that all becomes given circumstance because shortly after we meet him, his ambition is what we get swept up in, and that leads to his unravelling. It’s tough finding the balance between whether he is a good guy who has allowed these horrible things to change the shape of his mental structure, or whether he is someone who we never empathise with, that is just evil. To look more into the man who has honour and purpose and morals is tougher territory to play in, but that allows his ambition to overtake the choices he makes, and I find that interesting.
What’s the relationship like between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?
They’re very much a partnership, and if you look at their relationship we don’t get a lot of time to spend with them in a happy place, but I think they’re completely co-dependent. He knows that she is the force behind him. It’s like they bring that out in one another. They formulate a plan together, he comes around to the idea and still makes the choice himself to do it. I think she just has a much easier time dealing with those circumstances and what happens afterwards, whereas he lets his fear and the horror of what he committed infest his mind.
What design elements in this production are you excited about?
It’s a contemporary world that we’re in, which gives us a really easy in-road to relate to the piece. It’s not that it’s set anywhere in particular, but I think what Shaun, Esther and Simon are going for is something that feels like the world around us at the moment. It’s territory I’ve played in a little bit before with military films I’ve done, so it’s interesting to have that as a backdrop to this really classic story and be working with this text in that realm. It’s so adaptable in that sense. You can transplant Shakespeare and put it in any kind of space and time, and it’ll work because the themes are universal.
Do you find any resonance with Macbeth and our world at the moment?
The fact that he’s a ruler, we endow him with the status of King, but he’s a military King. The shape of this monarchy is different and feels much more akin to dictators that we have ruling parts of the globe in this day and time, so that’s interesting to explore. We’re only dealing with the text, so you can kind of invent as much story around that as you want for yourself. But you have to imagine that if we got to see the world we’re operating within in this play, it would be some sort of fascist regime, which I think is pretty real and current.
What’s it like being surrounded by the violence in this production?
The play is very visceral and the script begs for that. It’s fun, it keeps the energy up, but it’s pretty relentless, which can make it all the more exhausting to perform, as well as I’m sure to witness. But it’s good, I’ve always liked theatre that has a fast pace, it gives us a chance to introduce other elements. It’ll be an experience sitting through this production that will test your other senses, as well as being able to sit back and enjoy the story. It’s going to be loud, noisy, scary, and beautiful.
What was your first experience of Shakespeare?
I trained at WAAPA, so beyond some unenthusiastic study of it in high school English, that was really my first level of exposure to it. It’s interesting, it’s always challenging, no matter how experienced or invested in it you are, it can be tough to get a grasp on at first. The language can be a bit perplexing and intimidating, and trying to figure out how to get that to sit in your body is not easy. Fortunately, I had great training, and Leith McPherson, who’s the Voice Coach on this production, actually directed me when I last performed in Shakespeare at WAAPA. I was playing Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Leith’s so amazing, to be honest, I don’t think I’d want to attempt Shakespeare without having her around. She has such an amazing ability to help you digest this material. Learning under Leith has been a key into figuring out why I love it. I don’t know if at drama school I would have said I did. At that time I was more overwhelmed than excited by it, but coming back to it ten years later has really highlighted for me just how amazing and dense this writing is, and you learn that there’s no endgame with it. The work never really stops, and that’s what I love about it. Shakespeare’s just one of a kind. It blows my mind the talent of the individual that was behind this stuff. It’s really cool to work with stuff that was written by an actor, which he was, and designed to be performed without directors, all the clues are in the text, he tells you exactly what to do, and the fun part is trying to decipher that and allowing it to inform the process and the choices you make on stage.
What’s it like working with Simon Phillips on this production?
Simon’s amazing, I’ve known of him forever and seen a bunch of his work, but we’d never crossed paths. To be given the chance to work with him, especially on this, was just an absolute no-brainer, I was so thrilled to be invited along, and he’s just an amazing energy in the room. He’s obviously a genius in his own right, but the room is always light and funny, and he’s got a wicked sense of humour, which is important for balance. He’s got a tough role in all this, steering the ship, but his process has been a real joy to be under. I’ve learnt a lot through watching him work and how we move through each week to week building this thing. I feel really lucky to have someone that talented and experienced guiding me through this process.
Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.