Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Cal MacAninch - Betrayal

Cal MacAninch has played both upstairs and downstairs in the last year. 
On the one hand, the former star of Holby Blue and Wild at Heart has 
just been seen playing a troubled footman in the second series of 
Sunday night posh frock sensation, Downton Abbey. On the other, the 
Glasgow-born actor is currently in rehearsals at Glasgow's Citizens 
Theatre, where he's playing an Oxford educated publisher in Betrayal, 
Harold Pinter's1978 play about a love triangle amongst three close 
friends who flit around literary society.

If this sounds like some common or garden bourgeois adultery yarn, 
think again. Because Pinter adds spice to a story that looked to his 
own extra-marital affair with writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell for 
inspiration by having the action move backwards in time. This dramatic 
device lets the audience in on a complex web of secrets and lies told 
in Pinter's elliptical pared-back style.

“It's a lot harder than I thought it'd be,”  MacAninch admits about the 
first Citizens production to be directed by its new artistic director 
Dominic Hill. “One of the things is the precision of the language. It's 
a lot more poetic than one would think it is, so you can't really 
paraphrase your way out of trouble. It's very important that the words 
and the pauses are exactly right.”

As for Robert, MacAninch's own brooding intensity, which comes across 
in the seriousness with which he talks about his craft, sounds ideal.

“He finds out there's been a great Betrayal in his life,” MacAninch 
says of Robert, “and he makes a very particular decision about that, 
which is very unexpected. That impacts on everyone around him for the 
rest of his life. So it's about trying to understand why he does that, 
and that's very much Pinter territory, because it's about finding out 
that someone's got power over you and how you deal with that, and 
figuring out how you can have power over them. Robert chooses a very 
clever but quite destructive way of dealing with it, I think.”

Such onstage shenanigans are a far cry from Downton Abbey.

“I absolutely loved it,” he says, “right from the audition onwards. I'd 
never seen the programme, but I'd worked with the producer about twenty 
years ago, and straight away it felt great. Then I watched the 
programme, not expecting very much. I just thought it'd be another 
Sunday night drama, which doesn't fill me with very much enthusiasm, 
but I watched the whole series over two nights, and I thought, this is 
quite good.”

Considering just how much Downton has tapped into the public 
consciousness, this is something of an understatement.

“I don't know what it's captured in terms of the psyche of the nation,” 
he says, “but I certainly know that it's a beautifully shot piece of 
work, in which the acting is pretty good. It's very character-driven, 
and they kept throwing surprises in, like making the footman gay. One 
minute you think you're in this cosy little thing, and then it becomes 
something completely different.”

One could argue the same about Betrayal.

“Some people say it's a 1970s play,” MacAninch observes, “but I think 
it's more personal than that. It's timeless.”

MacAninch's stint in Betrayal will see the now Edinburgh-based actor 
return to the theatre where his career began as an extra on a 
production of Schiller's Mary Stuart. That was in 1985 when he was a 
student at Glasgow University, getting a distinction in Philosophy 
while failing English and French in his first year. When a friendly 
lecturer suggested he try drama because it was easy to make up academic 
points from the subject, MacAninch felt something light up inside him.

“When I first went onstage I was given a form of expression that I'd 
never had before, he says now. “And I still feel that whenever I go 

After graduating, MacAninch briefly attended Bristol Old Vic drama 
school, but hated it. He wrote a letter to director and designer 
Phillip Prowse, one of the Citz's legendary triumvirate who ran the 
theatre with Giles Havergal and the late Robert David MacDonald for the 
best part of thirty years. The letter was  a request to audition for 
that year's season, and he was duly cast in small roles in Tis Pity 
She's A Whore and Frankenstein. After that he appeared in A Tale of Two 
Cities, Prowse's production of Enrico 4, and Oedipus Rex.

MacAninch moved to London, where he spent a year doing tele-sales jobs 
inbetween auditions, and was eventually cast in Edinburgh-set legal 
drama, The Advocates. More high profile TV and film work followed, 
including the Howard Schumann-scripted Nervous Energy, in which 
MacAninch played a young man with AIDS. After watching it, Prowse asked 
his former extra to come back to the Citz to play Hamlet. He was the 
last actor to do so under the triumvirate. The first had been David 
Hayman, who also returns to the Citz this year playing the title role 
in Hill's forthcoming production of King Lear.

“That was a great homecoming,” MacAninch says of Hamlet. “I didn't have 
many ambitions at the time. One was to work at the Citz, because it was 
a place I loved. The other was to play Hamlet, but I never dreamed I 
would achieve both. Phillip Prowse was and still is a theatrical 
genius, so it was a great platform for me.”

The last time MacAninch appeared at the Citz was in Roxana Silbert's 
production of Tom Murphy's play, A Whistle in the Dark. More recently 
he appeared with Alan Cumming in the National Theatre of Scotland's 
production of The Bacchae, as well as the NTS production of Peter Pan. 
He even appeared at Oran Mor in Paddy Cunneen's play, Wee Andy.

“I did three films and two TV shows in the last year,”  MacAninch says, 
“but I could barely pay the bills. So if that's going to be the case, 
then I would rather do theatre. I would still go to America if I got 
the call. Not out of ambition, but just for the adventure. Otherwise, 
I'm quite happy being in Portobello with my family, who are the most 
important thing in my life.”

Despite what he says, MacAninch sounds totally driven about what he 
does. Dominic Hill told him
during rehearsals for Betrayal that it was watching him in a production 
of Anna Karenina directed by Nancy Meckler for Shared Experience that 
made him want to become a director. As well as being a neat squaring of 
circles, Hill's observation catches a sense of how that drive 
translates onstage. Ask where it comes from, and MacAninch leaves a 
lengthy and suitably Pinteresque pause.

“Things keep popping up that don't do any good,” he says eventually, 
wrestling with a set of acting truisms before hitting on the phrase, 
“To lose my sense of myself. I think when you're present to the story, 
you lose that sense of yourself and are totally in it, and I love that 
feeling. It's very powerful. I feel very powerful, as a man and as an 
actor, because it makes you present to life. Like when I was climbing 
when I was making a TV show called Rockface, I was so present to life. 
It's a great ambition, to be present. It's the most fulfilling thing.”

Betrayal, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 2nd-24th. Special 50P 
tickets for Betrayal go on sale on February 25th at 10am.

The Herald, February 21st 2012


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