Following in the family tradition with ‘cursed’ play

Aonghus Óg McAnally told David Hennessy about a ‘ground breaking’ forthcoming production of Macbeth, following in a proud family tradition of acting and when James Cagney bench pressed his dad and his uncle.

“It feels like live theatre as we know and love it,” actor Aonghus Óg McAnally says of Big Telly Theatre’s Macbeth by Shakespeare. The show headlines Belfast International Arts Festival this week before virtually transferring to Creation Theatre in Oxford.

“It also feels new and ground breaking at the same time. I think if you’re striking that balance that’s a very happy place to be.”

Directed by Zoe Seaton, this production of Shakespeare’s timeless bloody tale of political ambition and murder is a fully immersive digital theatrical production ceated for times of social distancing.

Big Telly Theatre has become one of Northern Ireland’s most esteemed theatre companies. Zoe Seaton has directed four successful lockdown productions including the critically acclaimed The Tempest – Live which earned praise from Time Out New York.

“I feel really privileged to be working with such a great team. Live performance and especially theatre has been left reeling. As people keep saying: We were the first to close and we’ll be the last to reopen. But I have to give full credit to Zoe Seaton and Big Telly and the gang in Creation as well.

“Big Telly have in the last six months become world leaders in online theatre. When you see the Time Out New York saying, ‘This is the best theatre show to see anywhere in the world this week’, they have the attention of the world now. They’re making stuff at such a high level.

“Some of the cast are on both shows and they’re saying the technological leaps even in the space of six weeks are incredible. We’ve got to a point now where I’m in Dublin, some of the cast are in Belfast, some of the cast are in London and yet we have moments where there’s three or four of us appearing in the same room on the same screen all remotely. The technological advances have been incredible but Big Telly have become world leaders in online theatre.

“It’s only two days since Broadway announced that they won’t be open until May 2021 at the earliest so this is the future of theatre for the medium term. Zoe Seaton and Big Telly are absolutely at the forefront of that. It’s a real privilege to be involved in it and to be at that cutting edge. It’s massively exciting because you would think that a theatrical experience filtered through a zoom meeting or a laptop screen would lost something. From the test audiences we’ve worked with and even just me getting to see the rest of the cast performing things that I’m not in, there is a really special quality to the experience that does replicate live theatre.”

Aonghus Óg says working from home has been a whole new way of working but one he has enjoyed.

“It’s unlike any rehearsal process I’ve ever been through. The show is for the Belfast International Festival, we’re going on tour to Oxford for two weeks. We’re in rehearsals now and I’ve never left the box room in my house. I’ve never met the rest of the cast. I’ve never met the director. I’ve never met the design team. It’s all been remote and it’s a bizarre way of working but weirdly it’s working really well. The show’s coming together nicely but it’s unlike any method of working I’ve ever encountered before.”

Aonghus Óg is actually following in a proud family tradition as his grandfather Ray McAnally who run four BAFTAs for his work in films such as My Left Foot and The Mission, once acted in a production of the well known Shakespeare play. His grandmother was also the actress Ronnie Masterson who was known for her work with the Abbey Theatre and in films such as Angela’s Ashes. His father Aonghus is also a well known actor, producer and children’s TV presenter.

The play Macbeth is said to be cursed due to several bizarre events such as actors being hurt in accidents and theatres burning down taking place around productions in the past. As a result of this, many actors will not speak its name instead calling it ‘the Scottish play’.

Aonghus Óg is respectful of the play’s reputation but says he is not one for superstition.

“I’m not a superstitious man generally but when it comes to theatrical superstition I treat them with a fair amount of respect. Older actors do take it more seriously and out of respect and deference for them, I would always respect the traditions around a play like this.

“Obviously, I’m steeped in theatre. My whole family are in the business. I’m a third generation actor.

“I know from my grandad doing it that they did have a careful respect for it. I know that they felt in the production that my grandad did that they had a couple of mishaps. He broke his nose in one of the fight scenes. I think as part of the pre-show ritual, where now we’re all rolling around on the stage in tracksuit bottoms doing vocal warm-ups, they used to get together and kneel for a decade of the rosary to immunise themselves against any potential danger.

“My understanding is they were very careful around it. A show like this with a big cast, there will be a cough and a cold or a flu or a sprained ankle or something at some point but I think they certainly felt they had more than their fair share.

Aonghus Óg McAnally.

“People do take it seriously and so as not to offend them more than anything else I’m quite respectful of the traditions but personally for me going into it, I’m not terrified.”

Macbeth features witches and sorcery and some believe it is cursed because it includes real witch incantations.

“I know there is a belief that some of the witches’ spells in the text were taken from legit spell books at the time in as much as you can call a spell book a ‘legit spell book’. I think people who are superstitious or religious or both do feel that they need to be careful around this play.

“I’m happy to do the show and particularly this time of year. It is spooky season and so anything that’s dealing in witches and witchcraft is, I think, a great fit for the moment.

“The great thing about a show like this is that it can be enjoyed by all the family.”

Instead, Aonghus Óg believes there could be another logical reason why theatres that put on the show end up closing soon afterwards.

“The best logic I’ve heard of why saying the name Macbeth is bad luck is because it’s a really great play that always does good business. So if the show you were doing wasn’t doing business, you would hear the management whispering, ‘Maybe we should put on Macbeth’. The story being if you heard the name Macbeth being uttered, it meant you were probably going to lose your job.”

Aonghus Óg plays multiple roles playing a witch, King Duncan and Macduff during the course of the evening. It is not the first time he is following in his iconic grandparent’s footsteps.

“I have played a couple of roles he played over the years. I’m pretty sure he played Macbeth in that production so I’m not quite literally stepping into the shoes.

Ray McAnally won four BAFTAs.

“I have been for costume fittings in the Abbey before trying on different suits. I tried one on and the name inside it was Ray McAnally: The last man to wear it before me. This is a very strange business to be putting on a suit with his name on it thirty years after he died but I like the history and the legacy of that. I’m very proud of all the achivements of my family and it’s a nice connection through time to previous generations.”

There was never any doubt that Aonghus Óg was going to go into the business after being raised on stories of Hollywood stars James Cagney who Ray acted with in Shake Hands with the Devil.

“There was never any question in my mind from the earliest age that I would do anything else. I have no recollection of ever thinking I wanted to do anything else other than this.

“There’s a story about my Dad coming home from school one day and Jimmy Cagney being in the sitting room. Jimmy Cagney lay down on the ground, put my Dad in one hand and my uncle Conor in the other hand and bench pressed the pair of them.

“There’s a story about my Dad coming home one night and my Grandad, sitting at the table wiht a pal of his, saying, ‘Where were you tonight? ‘

“And he says, ‘Dad, you won’t believe it. I was at the Marcel Marceaus show in town and it was phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it: The physical skill and mastery. What an incredible technician, storytelling, incredible stage presence: best show I’ve ever seen in my life.

“To which Ray said, ‘Well say hell to Marcel Marceau’. He was sitting at the kitchen table with him.”

Mabeth plays 14 – 17 October online at BIAF – Wed – Sat 7pm (Fri & Sat additional 9.30pm show). You can book here.

Macbeth plays 17– 31 Oct – online at Creation Theatre. Book  by clicking here or calling 01865 766266.

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