John Heffernan: 'I never thought I would be cast in this play'

As John Heffernan prepares to open in a new interpretation of ”Macbeth”, he talks about the production, his student days and the success of ”Oppenheimer”

John Heffernan in rehearsal for Macbeth
John Heffernan in rehearsal for Macbeth
(© Richard Hubert Smith)

This has been a good year for actor John Heffernan. Following his titular turn in the RSC’s five-star new play Oppenheimer, which quickly transferred to the West End, he was in the hit TV series Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, became a father and now has scored the title role in the Young Vic’s intriguing new dance version of Macbeth directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. It was back in 2013 when he swung firmly into the theatre-goers consciousness after playing opposite two of his heroes Simon Russell Beale and John Simm in The Hothouse; and his electric Edward II in his first lead at the National Theatre in Joe Hill-Gibbins‘ divisive, but dynamic production.

This production of Macbeth will feature dance, are you a dancer?

I haven’t danced since drama school. I have memories of putting on tights and having to do Michael Jackson's Thriller dance and wanting to die. I feel safer with this because the movement is rooted in the psychology of the characters so I can understand that a bit more.

Are you using the original text?

Yes. We’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to create a very specific world of the play. We want to highlight some contemporary parallels. Some of it seems spookily prescient: it's a play of beheadings and civil war and trauma. It feels particularly striking with the events of the last few months and even the last few days. The choreography gives us an amazing chance to explore more of the psychological realm of the characters.

Anna Maxwell Martin and John Heffernan in rehearsal for Macbeth
Anna Maxwell Martin and John Heffernan in rehearsal for Macbeth
(© Richard Hubert Smith)

How are you approaching the role?

The research period was fascinating, but rather gruelling. I looked a lot into modern day warfare, we looked at documentaries about Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and I have been looking at books on post-traumatic stress disorder. Whats been fascinating to me is the contradiction of Macbeth: he seems like a man who is a competent soldier and goes beyond the call of duty – he is a battle hardened machine. Yet when it comes to killing Duncan, a frail old man in his own home, he gets absolutely everything wrong.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s iconic roles, how does it feel to be taking it on?

It’s been incredibly exciting and daunting. I can honestly say I never thought I would be cast in this play. Physically and mentally I couldn’t see myself fitting in with my image of who Macbeth was. But as we’ve been rehearsing it, I’ve come to see that he's less this He-Man, he’s more somebody who is incredibly damaged and exploring that has helped me find a way in.

Edward II at the National divided a lot of people, how did you find that?

I felt very secure, the whole time, not so much because I had confidence in what I was doing, but because the director, Joe Hill-Gibbins, is completely brilliant. He was such an enabler of everybody in the room. In some respects it seemed fitting that there was something of the rebel in the show's spirits. I feel as though if we’d done that play in doublet and hose, it would have been contrary to what Christopher Marlowe was getting at.

Do you feel more drawn to directors who shake up classic texts?

I think we're really lucky in this country to have a variety of different approaches to theatre. I had a season as a spear carrier a while back in Stratford with the RSC – it was my second job – at the time I felt as though we were doing brilliant productions but were sometimes quite conservative. We were visited by lots of international companies which seemed to have a more playful spirit. But a lot has changed in the last eight to nine years, and productions like A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic last year, they've been so radically transforming. We'd be poorer without the variety.

'The play is certainly no dry science lesson': John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer
John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer
© Keith Pattison

What is it about certain projects that excites you?

A very good friend of mine once said there were four criteria: it’s the part; it’s the play; it’s the director; it’s the venue. It’s not a very romantic way of putting things, but it can help to clarify things in my mind. There’s also logistics, it’s a terribly boring thing to say. I’ve become a dad recently, and that moves the goalposts in terms of what’s attractive to do.

Oppenheimer was a sudden success, were you surprised by that?

It did come as a surprise, if I’m honest. Not because of Tom's writing or anyone's work on the show, because I thought the play was tremendous. But in no way did it scream a commercial success. When the play first came through my letterbox it was about 140 pages – about four and a half hours long. I’ve not got a science brain and there were these endless male scientists, which all seemed very similar with names that I’d never heard of and I found it really difficult to follow. It was a real surprise and a real joy when people responded to as they did, particularly to Tom’s writing because he deserved it.

What about the future – can you see past Macbeth?

I can’t really. I am on the look out for a little bit of telly. Because I don’t want to miss bed time, I’m a bit of a softy. I mean, I do love theatre and I hope I’ll get a chance to be in plays regularly, but the time feels very precious.

Macbeth runs at the Young Vic from Thursday 26 November 2015 to Saturday 23 January before touring to Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 26 to 30 January and then Manchester's HOME from 2 to 6 February.