Sunday, 11 September 2011

Shauna Macdonald - From Spooks To Monarch

Shauna Macdonald sees herself everywhere just now. As the former star
of TV spy drama Spooks prepares to play the title role in a new
production of Liz Lochhead's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her head Chopped
Off, so ubiquitous around town are images of the iconic historical
figure her character is based on that Macdonald might easily suspect a
plot as labrynthine as the one told in the play.

“Mary's on the back of all the buses,” Macdonald shrieks in only
partially mock alarm. “I'm cycling to work thinking about my lines,
thinking it'll all be alright, when suddenly Mary passes me on the bus
and I'm like, Oh, God, the pressure.”

The bus hoardings may be aimed at luring tourists into Holyrood Palace,
where the twenty-two year old monarch once resided following her
marriage to Lord Darnley in 1565, but the image remains captivating
enough for Macdonald to feel a certain sense of responsibility in her
version of Mary.

“All the characters are complicated, and they all do things they don't
want to do,” says Macdonald. “They say things and then do something
different, so it's like playing one of the great Shakespearian roles
like Lady Macbeth or someone. My Mary is very Frenchified. The play
follows the course of Mary coming to Edinburgh, to Leith, right up
until the day before she gets killed, so that spans a good twenty
years. I change through that, and I have experiences throughout that. I
get married for the second time and have a child, but before I have a
child my secretary’s killed by my husband. Then I decide that possibly
my husband's not right for me, so I arrange to have him killed, and so
on.

“So Mary is someone who follows her heart rather than her head, whereas
Elizabeth always followed her head. She's very much a woman who wants
love and a family, and tries to have it all. But can you actually have
it all and survive? Probably not. She's full of love, she loves life,
but is very trapped and repressed in Scotland. She's desperate at the
start of the play and desperate at the end. There's a glimmer of
happiness in the middle, but it doesn't last very long. If you're going
to try and rule your country with your heart, that's never going to
work.”

First seen in a production by Communicado Theatre Company in 1987,
Lochhead's play has become a modern classic, and was most recently seen
in 2009 in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland. Tony
Cownie's new take on the play, the first fruits of a partnership
between the Lyceum and Dundee Rep, promises to rewrite the rule book
even more by setting it in a contemporary junkyard where a group of
players utilise the assorted debris to tell their story.

This new production is something of a homecoming, too, both for the
play and the actress playing it's tortured queen. While Communicado
first staged Mary Queen of Scots at the now demolished Lyceum Studio,
as a member of the Lyceum Youth Theatre, Macdonald made what she
considers to be her professional stage debut as a teenager in another
historical play, Victory, by Howard Barker.

“I think I was seventeen then,” says Macdonald, “so coming back as a
grown-up with thirteen years life experience and work experience does
feel like coming home. Being from Edinburgh as well make it even more
exciting.”

It was as a shy child growing up in Portobello that Macdonald was first
exposed to drama via a junior choir group who put on musical theatre,
which her mother made her and her sister attend as a confidence
booster. Not being what she calls “a natural jazz hands type person,”
Macdonald found herself consistently cast as periphery fairies or a
more abstract colour of the rainbow. Only when her lines were cut after
being cast as what was described in the script of The Dragon of Tangly
Mountain as 'a disabled peasant' did she decide enough was enough.

Aged twelve, Macdonald joined the Brunton Youth Theatre in Musselburgh,
and was so impressed she also travelled to Paisley every Sunday, where
the youth theatre was run by the people who ran the Brunton. Here her
peers included a young James McAvoy, while in Musselburgh Macdonald was
cast in Oh What A Lovely War opposite future Fame Academy star David
Sneddon. After that she was cast in a lead role in a piece called Earth
Crack. It was then things started getting serious.

“I realised aged thirteen that what I was doing felt right,” Macdonald
reflects. “Your teenage years are so mixed up, and suddenly you find
yourself with a group of people pretending to be other things and
exploring different emotions, and for me it just felt right. This was
the sort of circle of friends I wanted to be part of, and it was like a
light going off.”

By the time she went to drama school in Glasgow, Macdonald had an agent
in the shape of Anne Coulter, who took her on after Macdonald had
worked as a cleaner for her brother. This led to her screen debut in
playwright Anthony Neilson's feature film, The Debt Collector. Still
only sixteen, Macdonald suddenly found herself acting opposite Billy
Connelly. While at college she took a lead role in The Rocket Post,
which should have made Macdonald a star but instead took five years to
be released, by which time the film's director Stephen Whittaker had
died.

Macdonald was picked up instead for Spooks, the British secret agent
series with a political bent. While effectively her apprenticeship in
television acting techniques, after three series she felt her character
wasn't developing, so left to jump straight into a lead role for horror
film, The Descent. After filming Irvine Welsh's TV film, Wedding
Belles, Macdonald took time out to have children with her partner,
actor Cal MacAninch, and somewhat remarkably regards Mary Queen of
Scots as a comeback.

“I'm hugely ambitious,” she says. “I wanted an Oscar by the time I was
thirty. I've got three months. Part of doing this play is to remind
people I'm still here. People have incredibly short memories in this
business, and I think some people maybe think I've gone to America or
something when I'm actually in Portobello.”

Somewhat ironically, Macdonald was meant to play Mary at the end of
2008 in a devised piece based on Schiller's Maria Stuart. What was
meant to be a major international collaboration between Edinburgh's
Traverse Theatre and Linz European Capital of Culture stalled at an
early stage. This time out, however, Macdonald looks set to go all the
way to the gallows with Mary.

“I've played lots of intense characters,” Macdonald says, “and I'm not
really sure where that comes from, but now I'm back I'm kind of at an
inbetween stage. I'm too young to play Anna Karenina but too old for
Juliet.”

Like Mary, you get the impression Macdonald has followed her heart both
in terms of her career and private life.

“I think some people think I could have done things differently,” she
laughs, “but I don't care what people think.”

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Royal Lyceum Theatre,
Edinburgh, September 16-October 15; Dundee Rep, October 19-November 5.
www.lyceum.org.uk
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, September 6th 2011

ends

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