As she takes on the title role in a gender-swapped Macbeth, her second time starring in a Shakespeare play and her latest collaboration with director Christopher Haydon, the actor and theatremaker tells Natasha Tripney about balancing experimental work with conventional theatre and how politics informs her creative process
A call goes out over the Tannoy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre: “Lucy Ellinson to the module.” The ‘module’ is how they refer to the seven-sided, in-the-round lunar capsule of a main theatre where the actor is in the middle of rehearsals for Macbeth, playing the title role. The production reunites Ellinson with director Christopher Haydon, someone she’s collaborated with many times over the years, most recently on Grounded, George Brant’s one-woman play in which Ellinson played a US fighter pilot who ends up flying drones after she becomes pregnant.
Ellinson describes her character from Grounded as a “warrior”, a word that could equally apply to Macbeth. Haydon was inspired to see what would happen if you took a classic play and “put a female body into that warrior role”. This is a bigger production than Grounded, both in terms of scale and the nature of the space. “The challenge,” says Ellinson, her hair freshly shorn for the role, “is to create the kind of contact you would in a 50-seat studio.” Fortunately, the Royal Exchange lends itself to intimacy despite its size. “No one is more than six metres away from the stage.”
With a background in experimental and devised work interlaced with activism, this is only the second time Ellinson has starred in a play by Shakespeare and she speaks with a mixture of deliberation and delight about the process of discovering the text that it entailed. Though separated by centuries, there is some overlap between the characters in the two plays, soldiers both. The company has been working closely with dramaturg Bridget Escolme to unpack the text.
“It’s as if the trauma is unfolding at a 24-frames-per-second rate and Macbeth is always one frame behind,” says Ellinson. Shakespeare grants the audience a deeper knowledge of Macbeth’s inner self than he gives to the character. “I find it quite moving.”
Ellinson uses the pronoun “she” when talking about her Macbeth, who is female in this production. She would prefer to be “an actor playing that role rather than someone of my assigned gender”. But her gender, her body, can’t be ignored. No body is neutral and hers is not just a female body, she stresses, but a white, cis woman’s body. “My body carries a lot of stuff with it,” she says.
In terms of the text, they’ve changed the pronouns and gender-specific job titles, “though we have been very careful to keep the iambic pulse running through the show”, Ellinson says. The idea of how men should behave – “the performed masculinity” – is central to the play. It shows how men and women both absorb social attitudes about gender: Lady Macbeth essentially asks Macbeth to man-up, just as the pilot in Grounded also internalised those same ideas, equating maleness with strength. A line runs between the two.
Ellinson was born in Chester and grew up in Wrexham in north Wales. Her family wasn’t particularly into theatre, but she enjoyed doing drama at school – “it was a place where I could escape” – and had “great drama teachers”. The Royal Exchange played a key role in her theatrical education. She used to visit it on the weekends as an A-level student. “It’s where I started to feel that this was something I would be interested in doing,” she says.
She went on to study English and theatre at the University of Leeds. There she saw a lot of devised work and started to gain an understanding of the model of making work “I might want to be in”. The theatre industry, however, is “a pretty unforgiving world when you step into it as a 20-something female actor”. After graduating, she says: “I got a bit lost.”
It was only after doing activism for a couple of years that friends approached her about making work. She started putting on shows in pub theatres and formed a company called Mapping4D with artists including Wendy Hubbard and Mamoru Iriguchi. They won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award in 2004 to make a show, The Pink Bits, which they performed at Riverside Studios.
She began to collaborate with companies including Unlimited Theatre and Slung Low – companies that, like her, had an interest in making work that involved communities. This supportive network was instrumental in her development as an artist and in her starting to think of herself as an actor.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I can’t really remember now, as I did loads of jobs as a teenager… cleaning jobs, temp work at a VCR factory, pubs, cafes, restaurants… I think my first proper payslip was for working at a Wacky Warehouse in Wrexham.
What was your first professional theatre job?
My devising company Mapping4D – Wendy Hubbard, Sarah Levinsky, Ben Pacey, Mamoru Iriguchi – received the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award in its second year, and so I got a small weekly fee for that. It was a big jump in scale for us.
What is your next job?
I’m working with an international collective of artists on a piece about the work and impact of theatre director François Abu Salem, and the El-Hakawati Theatre based in East Jerusalem. Their impact on Palestinian theatremaking was enormous and they’re an incredible company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Everyone is improvising. We’re all trying to figure this out, you’re not on your own.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
The principles of the people I’m lucky to call my friends and regular collaborators.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. Although I suppose Chris Haydon once gave me a lucky charm… We’re both avid West Wing fans and in one episode, before President Bartlet delivers the State of the Union, the First Lady cuts his lucky tie in half with a pair of scissors minutes before he’s due to step out in public. Chaos ensues and he’s given the jolt of energy and focus he didn’t know he needed. On the premiere of Grounded, Chris found a terrified me backstage, popped a tie over my head, and did the same. I now carry that tie with me on every show. I thought I was being sentimental rather than superstitious and he definitely will be surprised to hear this. Also, I was nearly struck by lightning on the press night of Top Girls this year, so maybe I should pay closer attention to this stuff…
A key creative relationship was with Haydon who, along with Chris Thorpe and Chris Goode, is someone she’s worked with regularly: “I have a lot of Chrises,” she laughs. Haydon has “more ambition for me than I do for myself”. While she was making experimental work, he was encouraging her to make plays. He directed her in Monsters, Niklas Radstrom’s play about the killing of James Bulger, at the Arcola in 2009, and while artistic director at London’s Gate Theatre, he directed her in Trojan Women (Ellinson played the chorus) and Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which featured a community choir – community engagement being something she’s passionate about.
“He and I are happy to speak frankly with one another about what will work,” says Ellinson, which is fortunate because when Haydon directed her in Grounded, the set by Oli Townsend – who has also designed Macbeth – consisted of a box made of gauze that she couldn’t see through. This wasn’t intentional, but it quickly became apparent it was the case. “For the first week I was quite claustrophobic and not sure it was possible,” she says.
Ellinson places a lot of value on having a direct relationship with the audience and he put four walls around her, “a border between me and the audience so I can’t make eye contact”. Though she couldn’t see them, she could hear everyone very clearly. “Your other senses dial up a bit,” she says.
During the pre-show, as she was stood in the box doing, “for want of a better term, a Tory power-stance”, she would listen as people took their seats. “Everyone would have this little light on their faces from their phone screens and then they’d all go out – blip, blip, blip – it was kind of beautiful.”
Now Ellinson balances experimental work with conventional theatre. Earlier this year she appeared in Lyndsey Turner’s production of Top Girls at the National Theatre as Patient Griselda. This was particularly exciting to her, because “that play was a huge part of my development as a feminist and a political person”.
Her politics manifest in works such as #Torycore, a show that saw her bellowing the words of former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne over waves of death-metal guitar supplied by Thorpe and Steve Lawson. The structural violence of Osborne’s austerity policies, paired with the ear-splitting music, “felt like a good fit”. Though it was made in a few days for a Forest Fringe residency at the Gate Theatre in 2012, its power was considerable, the rage and frustration contained in it palpable. Would she consider revisiting or remaking it? The temptation has been strong, but “we feel it has to have welfare at its heart, because the extreme violence towards disabled people in this country is unforgivable”, she says.
One of the productions she speaks of with most warmth is Erica Whyman’s 2016 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Subtitled A Play for the Nation and the centrepiece of a year-long programme of work to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it united the RSC with amateur companies around the UK, with the amateur groups performing as the Rude Mechanicals and Ellinson playing Puck.
“I absolutely loved that show and I’m so glad that was my first experience of working for the RSC.” At each venue the fairies were played by groups of local schoolchildren. “I got to watch children who’d never been inside a theatre before find this enormous voice inside them.” So many people came to see that show who might not have otherwise engaged with Shakespeare, she says. “It had a huge impact. It showed what theatre can do.”
Born: 1978, Chester
Training: Theatre and English at Leeds University
• Monsters, Arcola Theatre (2009)
• The Trojan Woman, Gate Theatre (2012)
• Grounded, Traverse Theatre (2013)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation, Royal Shakespeare Theatre (2016)
• Jubilee, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2017)
• Top Girls, National Theatre (2019)
Agent: Amanda Fitzalan Howard
Macbeth is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until October 19