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Lauren Gauge interviews Henry Proffit who plays Macbeth at Bussey Building, Peckham

The Offies is about discovering and championing outstanding talent. Superb Off West End venues are hidden away just as a cutely. The Bussey Building’s 3rd floor theatre is one such gem. Built by The Royal Court and still exuding a similar contemporary edge is South East London’s CLF Arts Café within Peckham’s prized Bussey Building, a former cricket bat factory – how’s that for character and history? In four weeks’ time another historical and much-loved character will play on stage – Macbeth. I catch up with actor Henry Proffit, playing the lead part in one of Shakespeare’s most thrilling plays.

Lauren Gauge: You’ve been cast in the titular role as Macbeth, it’s a role that has been performed many times by many great actors – our friend and previous Offies Awards host Sir Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold’s film and more recently James McAvoy at Trafalgar Studios. What have you found that you are personally excited to play with in performance?

Henry Proffit: The challenge is that everyone knows it. But actually, when you’re working on it you realise how clever it is. The banquet scene is brilliant to play; the language is so good that you just want to get a hold of every scene and get inside it and interrogate it. I love the banquet scene with the ghost. It’s rare to be able to play against a ghost in a psychological thriller, in a horror yes, but this is very much a thriller. There are so many interesting and complex moments. The first speech ‘Two truths are told…’ is great, so there’s lots that I am excited to get into. The relationship with Lady Macbeth is really interesting, the way it moves and where it ends...

LG: Performing in Peckham and at the now quite iconic Bussey Building famed for eclectic music, club nights and arts programming, audiences may expect a more contemporary take on the play. What have you and the Macbeth production company ‘Devil You Know’ done to meet that potential expectation?

HP: The company came up with the idea specifically for the Bussey Building. The idea came and the Bussey Building fitted it really well. The objective is to retell Shakespeare and serve the text but find how we can make it interesting and contemporise it for an audience that isn’t necessarily associated with Shakespeare, hence going to the Bussey Building. The whole concept is about setting it in the future, which throws up lots of interesting choices when it comes to how you fight, what you wear, what they drink out of it. The concept is what contemporises it and makes it relevant for a younger audience.
It’s a metallic hard environment, cities have been burnt out and obliterated. So in the Bussey Building which is an old warehouse, a metallic hard concrete environment, it is the perfect setting for that, the two work really well together.

LG: Henry, you’ve performed at York Theatre Royal and your co-stars James Pearse and Tony Portacio at the RSC and Manchester Royal Exchange respectively, what’s it going to be like performing in a converted warehouse theatre space? Are you going to cope?

HP: Ha. Yes, because it’s a very well-made space. The performance space is ideal for Macbeth, it’s a good size, quite large for an Off West End Theatre. It’s going to be exciting! It’s worth saying it isn’t an immersive show, it’s a theatre show within a theatre. I often think people hear Bussey Building and might not be aware that there is a theatre space within it, a very well-made one.

LG: You mentioned the Royal Court. Amongst a season of work they have run a youth outreach programme from the theatre for the local community, are you eager to draw in new and younger audiences from the local community?

HP: I like the idea that someone who hated Shakespeare at GCSE will walk away from this one having loved it and change their opinion on Shakespeare. Hopefully we will draw audiences that don’t typically see Shakespeare and we can thrill them and they go on to think and talk about it. That is ultimately what we are trying to do. So hopefully that will be something that happens.

LG: Essentially the story of Macbeth is full of violence and themes of masculinity. What are your feelings on masculinity, the way men have traditionally been portrayed in the play and how theatre can influence culture and perception?

HP: Theatre comes with responsibility. Lady Macbeth is a defeminised character and masculinity is part of the men of the play because of the nature of the time and what they were like; it’s a masculine play in a sense because they are very much men and they are warrior men. But as for what theatre should do and how women are portrayed, theatre has the responsibility always to attempt to improve the perception of many disenfranchised groups. I don’t think specifically we are attempting that with this because we’re not an all-female cast. An all-female cast could be interesting, but I suppose that is a question aside from this particular production.

LG: Theatre importantly recognises what is happening in the world, and masculinity and gender are two hotly debated topics at the moment so putting yourself in a role where you’re surrounded by violence, patriarchy and masculinity. It would be interesting to understand what your feelings are of how you’re portraying that to audiences, and how that feels for you…

HP: It’s a massively violent play. Blood is mentioned over one hundred times. But on the other hand, the violence for Macbeth as a warrior comes easily because he has trained for that from a young man to be a soldier. However, he feels incredibly conflicted about the murder of Duncan. What makes him a tragic hero is the simple fact that he is a human being and in my opinion, is at the beginning of the play a good man who is hugely ambitious. It is his ambition that leads him down a path but he is never fully comfortable with what he does. But it is interesting that the murder he commits, the murder of Duncan for example, and the ordering and killing of Banquo these are things he is conflicted about. Shakespeare humanises men in that way. Otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting if they just go out and kill with no consideration, then the play wouldn’t mean anything.

LG: What drew you to the character and the story, and what do you want to pull out thematically and attracts you about the role as an actor?

HP: Supernatural. Murder. Death. Why people kill people. Being a tyrannical individual. There are many themes. But from an acting point of view for me it’s just about uncovering the person and what is the reality of the scenes and what is he going through. What’s interesting about this play is the complexity of the character and the myriad of experiences that he goes through. It is a psychological thriller of a person who commits heinous acts. This isn’t a villain. This is a man. It’s a tragedy because he is a human being and a good man that makes bad choices and commits terrible acts, but the trick would be to get the audience to empathise with that man. What previous performers have done is interesting and that is what attracts me, is to uncover that humanity and attempt to somehow experience that. That’s the challenge and it’s an exciting challenge.

LG: You’ve got a stellar team behind the production including the multi-Offie award nominated designer, Mike Lees. What design elements are you eager to see realised and be able to explore on set?

HP: Mike is an amazing costume maker and designer. He is incredibly creative. It’s amazing to have him on this project. He works really well with the director Paul Tomlinson, who is amazing at working with the text and actors and also incredibly creative director. Mike is extremely strong on the concept and looking at it laterally. For example, in the world we are creating, a dystopian world, what would they be drinking in the banquet scene? Would they be drinking moonshine? His costumes are stunning and I look forward to stepping out onto his set. He is incredibly proud about his work, very hands on and very passionate and involved every step. It comes through in the details of the costumes and props, of everything. I’m also excited to work with everyone on sound. I know there’s ideas of bringing the demon on in the final witches’ scene and maybe using distorted voices, which should be very exciting and that will hopefully help me do the scene!

LG: Can you tell our audience more on the concept and the futuristic elements of the production being set in a dystopian future in 100 years’ time?

HP: We’re doing it ultimately because it lends up really interesting choices: what would the weapons be? What would they drink out of? What would they be wearing? Ultimately the concept works well into the play. We are not shoe-horning the concept into the play – we’re not adapting it into world war one or anything like that. There are a lot of parallels with the world that we are creating and this one. In our environment there is no technology. Civilisation has been wiped out as we know it. Towns and cities have been annihilated. The population has gone back to something like 500,000. Everything that has been left on this earth becomes utilised. There are no means of making electricity. Society whilst it’s in the future has reverted. Everything they have the weapons they use have been forged and made. What does this stripped down brutal environment do? We’re hoping it adds to the plays edge the violence and brutality that’s within the play in an interesting and more contemporised way.

LG: As with all theatre the key question is why here and why now? What can an audience look forward to during Macbeth at the Bussey Building?

HP: I think it’s interesting that there is a relevance that within our concept, is the idea (and this before it became a public problem) that there has been a nuclear holocaust and that civilisation as we know it has been obliterated by a nuclear war. I think it’s interesting for an audience to see – in a situation where we are having a lot of nuclear tensions within the international community, much more so than for a long time, and now we can see a world of what that might look like. This is what we’d look like if that happens. This show is going to give you a taste of that. For an audience, they can step in and look ahead to what that might be like and that hopefully might lead people to people being entertained (because we want people to be entertained and be on the edge of their seats) but also leave them thinking and saying ‘Shakespeare is amazing but wow, Kim Jong-un with his nuclear weapons and Trump, that’s what the world could look like.’ It’s absolutely relevant now in this moment for us to be doing it. We’re excited about it.

Macbeth runs 31 October – 18 November 2017
£5 Mondays & £5 Early Bird tickets
BUSSEY BUILDING 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, London SE15 4ST

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