James McArdle makes a welcome return to the International Festival next month in National Theatre's Peter Gynt. We spoke to the actor about the epic production, preparing for such a demanding role and his top tips for Festival-goers this August.
‘James McArdle is dazzling in this laugh-out-loud production’
First up, are you excited to be returning to the International Festival following your portrayal of James I in The James Plays in 2014?
James McArdle: I’ve been dying to get back ever since The James Plays! I absolutely loved that time, and I loved performing at the International Festival. I think it’s so amazing for Scotland to have the whole world come to us to see culture from all over the place, you can see things that you’d usually have to travel to find, but here it’s right on our doorstep. That’s what’s thrilling about Edinburgh for me, and why it’s so exciting to perform this role here – it just really feels like an International Festival show.
Speaking about the role, what do you most enjoy about playing Peter Gynt?
JM: I’ve always wanted to play Peer Gynt – in this case, Peter – ever since I was young and at Youth Theatre. The play is very much about a man who is consumed by himself, or the idea of himself, so it ties into the way people promote themselves these days by creating their own narrative. The story is completely relevant to the world that we’re living in today, and that’s why I want to take on this role now, at this time. It’s just one of the great big parts to play, and I think it’s completely transfixing to watch. I also think it’s a contemporary epic, and we don’t see a lot of those on our stages anymore, so it’s an amazing opportunity to present a play of a size and scale like this.
David Hare’s adaptation relocates Ibsen’s antihero from Norway to Scotland, how does it feel to bring this Scottish version of the story back home?
JM: That was always really important to me. As soon as I knew we were doing it, and I said I wanted to do it in my own accent, David Hare said ‘well I’m actually going to go further and set it in Scotland’. From then I was really keen for it to have an authentically Scottish cast, like Ann Louise Ross – the Dame of Dundee Rep – she has done stuff that other actors can’t do. I was so keen on getting people like Ann in from the very start. In this case it happens to be a great European classic play, performed by Scottish people – it’s not a choice to make it edgy or anything, or a hook – and I am so looking forward to bringing it back home for Scottish audiences to see.
Audiences will see you on stage for nearly all 3 hours of the production, what does it take to prepare for such a demanding role?
JM: Well I drink a lot of water! Also, luckily, because of some of the previous performances I’ve done – things like The James Plays with the National Theatre of Scotland, the Young Chekhov series at Chichester Festival Theatre, and then the National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America – I’m used to doing these sorts of novel, epic pieces… But none of them quite compare to this. What they have done, is lead up to this moment and built up my stamina. And you just have to treat yourself a bit like an athlete; sleep well, eat right and protect your voice.
You’ve worked a lot in theatre, but also in film and TV, how do they differ from each other, and do you prefer any medium to another?
JM: I don’t really prefer one over the other, I like a healthy mix of all of them. I think that one informs the other, and that one might make you better in the other. I’ve always tried to do all of them and I like to mix it up – maybe after a long run of theatre, it’s great to go off and do some filming. My priority is to do good work, and to do better, and that’s what’s important to me.
Talking of work, if you hadn’t become an actor, what job would you be in now?
JM: Acting was really the only thing I properly had in my mind. The other ideas were too grandiose, I either wanted to become a vet, or the Prime Minister! Maybe I’ll play a power-crazed vet on telly one day… No but really, this is always what I wanted to do.
And finally, do you have any tips for anyone coming to the International Festival this year?
JM: I just love being in Edinburgh at that time of year, seeing as many plays as I can and soaking up the atmosphere. I’ve such special memories of Edinburgh. I actually get a bit emotional when I go to Edinburgh because I get quite nostalgic, some of the happiest times of my life were spent there. As for tips… I would encourage people to take a chance and go to see something different. A lot in our culture tells us it’s nice to switch off, but I’d encourage them to switch on for a month, see something new, and look outwards. And absolutely see Peter Gynt. You’ll never get to see anything like this ever again.
The Edinburgh International Festival and National Theatre co-production of Peter Gynt comes to the Festival Theatre on 1-10 August 2019.