James McArdle interview: Peter Gynt at the Edinburgh International Festival

The Scottish actor on this year’s must-see theatre showpiece

James McArdle stars in the epic Peter Gynt at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: 
Debra Hurford Brown
James McArdle stars in the epic Peter Gynt at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Honestly I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” says James McArdle. Make that a juggernaut. He’s playing the title role of Peter Gynt, renamed from Henrik Ibsen’s original Peer Gynt, the major co-production from Edinburgh International Festival and National Theatre of Great Britain, the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh theatre programme. It’s an epic, in every sense of the word, and perfectly timed for the age of social media.

When we speak, McArdle has been storming it three hours twenty minutes on stage a night, plus matinees, as the anti-hero who gets his comeuppance, since June in London. Now Peter Gynt is Edinburgh-bound for August before returning to London until October.

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The updated version of Henrik Ibsen’s marathon 40-scene 1867 epic verse play from playwright David Hare and directed by Jonathan Kent, centres on a fantasist who kidnaps a bride on her wedding day and runs away on a lifetime’s journey. Reimagined for the age of Twitter, with Dunoon replacing Norway and a predominantly Scottish cast, it follows Peter from Scotland to Florida as the mountain and social climber meets two-headed trolls and talking hyenas and eventually winds up back where he started, 50 years on with little but the realisation of his own emptiness.

James McArdle and some of the cast in the co-production of Peter Gynt, from Edinburgh International Festival and National Theatre of Great Britain

Cramming a lifetime’s riotous adventure into three hours and twenty minutes is not a role for the faint-hearted, but 30-year-old McArdle hit the ground running when he left Glasgow for a place at RADA at 17. He was playing Macbeth within months of graduating, then racing ahead as Harold Abrahams in the stage version of Chariots of Fire and has spent the past decade honing his craft with lead roles on national stages in London, Edinburgh and Broadway. He was King James I of Scotland in the first of Rona Munro’s James Plays trilogy at the EIF in 2014, played the title role in Chekhov’s Platonov in 2015, (his first collaboration with Hare and Kent), then wowed Broadway in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America in 2018.

“I’ve done long epics before and they primed me for the kind of stamina I need but they’re nothing compared to what I have to do in this,” he says. “I had yesterday (Sunday) off and truth be told I lay in bed all day, got a massage, drank water, ate healthily and lay down. There’s no other way to do it. You really have to live like an athlete; it’s the only way to get through it physically.”

Emotionally he finds it easier, despite dramatising all the major building blocks of a life, “family, death, your own mortality, success, failure, all these things. You have to go in open-hearted and go through the full gamut. Sometimes twice a day,” he laughs. “When I’m standing ready to come on, I can’t allow myself to think of where I have to go in the next three hours 20 minutes, I just have to take it one scene at a time.”

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Fortunately McArdle is energetic, as well as passionate, articulate, a self-confessed dogmatist, sticker to principles, and a talker, or “blabbermouth” as he puts it, especially when it comes to plays, politics and particularly the relevance of Peter Gynt.

James McArdle playing James 1 in The James Plays trilogy, a hit at 2014's Edinburgh International Festival

And he’s very keen to get the play up to Edinburgh and a Scottish and international audience.

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“Because it feels like such a European play in content, style, tone and sentiment. It’s an outward looking play, not a domesticated, neat little middle class play. It’s a contemporary epic and I don’t know when we’ve seen one of those for ages, especially on a London stage or in an English theatre. For me the International Festival feels more like its home. Where are the European masterpieces on our British stages? Everything gets domesticated and made linear, and this is the opposite. It goes into a wild poetry and expansive landscape, psychological and physical, and if you’re open to it, articulates the modern world.”

Ripe for adaptation Peer Gynt is a rollicking, roiling lifetime of a ride that satirised Ibsen’s Norway and the new version has plenty of relevance in our era of Twitter, social media and fake news.

“I think the time has come for it right now,” says McArdle. “It’s all about self-obsession, and the grandiose version of ourselves that we portray, trying to create your own story, narrative, legend. Which is exactly in our age what the politicians are up to and what people are up to on social media, on Instagram. It’s about the modern existential crises we find ourselves in as individuals.”

McArdle, far right, as the Earl of Moray in Mary Queen of Scots, with left to right, Ian Hart as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart. Picture: Liam Daniel/Focus Features via AP

It was the challenge of the part that appealed to McArdle, its “undoable nature” and “the audacity of trying to do Peter Gynt”, as well as the chance to work with Hare and Kent again. He’s also happy that it may divide opinions. “It’s not a traditional play and I don’t think a European audience would bat an eye at its strangeness, whereas for a British one, it might take a certain kind of audience member to open up to it, which is incredibly exciting.”

And if anyone wants to carp about the length of the play, McArdle gives them short shrift.

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“A play is as long as it needs to be, and this incorporates a man’s entire life from his twenties to eighties and also his entire psychological journey, from triumph to disaster, from self-grandeur to self-deprecation. It’s impressionistic, expansive and that’s to be celebrated. You’ve got to feel you’ve lived through it. So I don’t accept length as a criticism of a play. I just think you absolute philistine. Go and pull your heid oot yer arse, honestly.

Peter Gynt is epic in scope, size and length because it will NOT work in Snapchat form,” he says. “It’s a little deeper than that. These are the issues the play deals with. Look at what’s happened politically, this whole – I can’t even BEAR saying the term ‘fake news’ ‘cos it’s a phrase coined by the alt-right – but what’s happened now in our own reality.”

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Warming to his subject, he goes on to paraphrase Ivanka Trump. “She said something like, ‘perception is more important than reality’ and that’s terrifying. But it’s true of how we delude ourselves and spin our own stories. That just fascinates me and I don’t know how to put that on stage in a neat, domesticated, middle class way. I only know how to splurge it out in an existential vomit like this. It’s as big an adventure as life, and as mad as an entire life, captured on stage in a way that’s as weird and as wonderful as our own lives are.”

Which brings us to the weird and wonderful life of McArdle, who can identify with the half dream, half reality experience of Peter Gynt.

“I have one foot firmly in where I’ve come from and my real life,” he says, “whereas the other foot is in the weirdest, wackiest adventures you could imagine.”

Born in Glasgow, he grew up in Darnley, an only child. He can’t envisage what he’d have done if he hadn’t become an actor, although there was a time when prime minister or a vet appealed. “I was always very grandiose,” he says.

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“I think I was always a wee showoff, forever telling stories and boring my whole family. My aunty eventually said you should get him into a drama group, so I went to PACE in Paisley, which absolutely changed my life. I thought drama was like show kids, musicals and blah, blah, blah, but PACE was quite intense and by the time I went to drama school at 17 I had already studied Lorca, Stanislawski, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen and Chekhov. One of the teachers there, Mhairi Gilbert loves Peer Gynt, and I remember her saying to me when I was about 13 you should play Peer Gynt. So it’s weird it has come full circle.”

Coupled with encouragement from the drama department at St Ninian’s high school, with this dramatic grounding you can see why McArdle applied to RADA, even if his parents have been occasionally nonplussed.

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“My parents are endlessly supportive,” he says, “but I think bewildered as well. My gran Betty was always encouraging and her cultural knowledge was unbelievable. She was a working class woman in Govan who knew Noel Coward, Shakespeare... was of that generation of Glaswegians that valued discussion and culture.”

As for the social media generation, McArdle, worries about their cultural experience as well as their lack of engagement offline. He studiously avoids Twitter and Instagram himself.

“It feels alien to me charting your own success like that on social media. I think it’s a dangerous tool on many levels; politically, socially, existentially, on a human level. I just can’t stand it.”

Although he’s not averse to a swatch at Love Island on occasion, especially after spending three hours emoting on stage.

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“I’m not snobby like that,” he says. “I know it’s nice to switch off and will happily vegetate in front of Love Island for half an hour, looking at pretty people embarrass themselves for practically no money and a wee bit of fame. I cannot help but watch in a horrified car crash way,” he says.

“But I really don’t think ITV2, Instagram and social media as the dominant cultural force are entirely benign. I think it suits the people in power that we aren’t engaged or questioning. And I think they actively degenerate brains and you become self-obsessed, like Peter Gynt.

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“Someone said ‘we’re not after information any more, we’re after affirmation’ and I think that’s true, not only of the vain pursuits on Love Island or Instagram, but also politically. We want to hear what we think back at us, and that’s it. So... anyway, sorry, I’m ranting,” he says, and laughs. “This is basically just like being on Twitter.”

McArdle needn’t apologise, it’s refreshing to hear someone owning their opinions and politics. His self-belief appears shored by knowing where he’s from and having a family and friends who tell him how it is, balancing the industry world he often inhabits.

“I have a fear of being involved in the middle of the London hoi polloi of the acting world because I’ve seen it drive people mad, and a kind of solipsistic narcissism take hold. That’s why if I have more than two days off I’m back in Glasgow. The majority of my best friends are not actors and loads of people in my life don’t really understand what it means to be a lead on Broadway, the theatre thing. They get the movies more (like this year’s Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan).

“It was so funny when my mum and dad came to Broadway to see Angels in America. They were like ‘do we HAVE to go and see both parts’, because the play was eight hours, and they’d seen it in London.” He laughs. And I remember we were getting mad standing ovations, and seeing them sort of reluctantly getting up last. Afterwards my mum said to me, ‘well they all seem to like it, don’t they?’” He laughs. “All you need is a Glaswegian cohort to bring you firmly back down to earth.”

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It was the same when McArdle starred in the first of the James plays and emerged offstage at the end after what he thought was a particularly good show.

“I thought my mum’s finally gonna understand everything about me and she was standing there, all beaming. She said, “Blythe Duff was on All Star Family Fortunes.”

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And for the final verdict on the Peter Gynt from McArdle’s home crew after they saw it in London?

“I was wondering how they would take it, whether it was near to the bone for them. They said they thought I looked like my mum when I was playing Peter as an old man. My mum said, “you looked like me in that wig, by the way.”

This’ll be where McArdle gets his take it or leave it attitude towards awards: he won an Ian Charleson Award for Platonov in 2015 and was nominated for an Olivier Award last year for Angels in America.

As he puts it, “None of the sheen impresses me whatsoever. I don’t believe any of that is real. This or that is all fashion and I’m happy to play along with it to further my ability to choose what work I do, but none of it impresses me.”

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Now a decade into his career, he has been jolted by the role of Peter Gynt to reflect on where he is, where he’s going and what it means to him.

“There’s never been a play that’s made me think about my mortality so much. There’s a line at the end, ‘Where have I spent my life?’ and I can never get through it. Even now saying it to you, I feel myself filling up.

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“Because in this rampant capitalist world based on success, or values we’re told that we have – the nuclear family, the mortgage, becoming a successful a, b or c – it just blows apart those external pressures that are put on us. Does that make sense?” he asks.

“I’ve literally gone from job to job since I left drama school and my first decade has been playing lead roles at the National, and I’m incredibly privileged to do that, but I’m reaching a point where I think ‘what is it that you want?’ That doesn’t mean I’m saying I don’t want this, it just means that rather than blindly going along with it, you kind of go here’s what I will do, what I won’t do, what I want to achieve and what I want to avoid.”

In line with his life assessment, he’s relocating back to Glasgow after living between his home city, London and New York for the past few years and thinking about the next job. There’s the release of Ammonite, a big screen story of fossil hunting in 1840s England, starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet, that saw McArdle happy to be cast against type by director Francis Lee.

“I’m a working class Glaswegian and the part is an upper class English boy. As we know the industry is littered with upper class Etonians who are more right for the part, but he had faith that I could transform, and I loved that.”

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He’d also welcome a possible return in some form to the James plays. “I don’t feel I’ve done with the James plays yet and they are timeless masterpieces.”

On top of that there are ideas floating about, film and theatre, but McArdle is led by the scripts. “I’m not like now I need to do a film, now I need to do TV, now I need to do theatre. I’m not going to leap onto mediocre scripts just because there’s more money.

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“I just want to be good, and get better, and the only way to do that is to surround yourself with people who know what they’re talking about and have something to say. I just want to get better.”

James McArdle stars in Peter Gynt, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 1-10 August, £15 - £38, www.eif.co.uk