Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Nicky Harley: Big Telly’s Macbeth

By | Published on Friday 2 October 2020

You’re all surely familiar by now with Big Telly Theatre and Creation Theatre – the companies behind some of the most innovative lockdown theatrics we’ve seen, delivered with aplomb via Zoom – because we have been featuring them here a lot.

The latest production to come our way from Big Telly is a new adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, to be digitally delivered as part of Belfast International Arts Festival ahead of a further virtual run via Creation Theatre. To find out more I spoke to one of the stars of the show, Nicky Harley, who plays Lady Macbeth.

CM: Can you start by telling us a little more about this latest role?
NH: I’m playing Lady Macbeth in Big Telly Theatre Company’s fifth online theatre production since the pandemic. It’s such a fantastic role to take on. I could say she is Macbeth’s wife, but it feels more fitting to say he’s her husband. In so many ways she owns him. It really is a complicated love.

In my opinion she is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest female character: a dangerous and intelligent woman who is also vulnerable, susceptible and weak to her need for power and control. I love her and also fear loving her. Her tale is a tragic one.

CM: How have you prepared for this role? 
NH: Like many others would do, I have really interrogated the script and thought about her path within the world.

What does she believe she wants? What does she really want? How does she view herself? Is she lonely? Afraid? What makes her fierce? What makes her vulnerable? My preparations are always questions!

She’s the driving force behind so much of the action and so getting to the root of what motivates her has been key.

I’ve watched a million different Lady Macbeths over the years, for me it’s been about finding my authentic version of her. I have been arming myself with as many tactics she may use to navigate her path. It’s been a dream to get the chance to play her, so I’ve had by default a lifetime of preparation! 

CM: This is a digitally produced version of the play, of course; in what ways has it been adapted to accommodate these circumstances? Are you using the original script? 
NH: This is an edited version of the original script performed by a cast of five in total. The total running time is approx 75 mins, so it really is a whirlwind.

Big Telly have made some really clever edits and merged some scenes which works perfectly for a digital production. Performing this on Zoom is a great opportunity to really play with an audience’s experience.

Due to the nature of the platform they get a visually edited and manipulated journey. It is an intimate view of the world of the play, like flies on the walls, they become privy to every decision and dilemma.

The audience are an active agent the entire time. This is an up close and personal experience of the text. I’ll say no more!

CM: How did you come to be performing in this show? 
NH: I’ve had the pleasure of working with Big Telly Theatre a few times before and this particular production came as a direct offer to become part of the ensemble. The auditioning process was held online and the five of us, who were eventually cast in the roles, are spread across countries and the UK, with some of us in Belfast, Dublin and in London.

CM: You’ve worked on previous digital productions, haven’t you? Obviously it must be very different from performing on stage. How have you adapted to the medium? 
NH: This is my fourth full production on Zoom since March. It took a while to get my head around it. I think at the beginning I was so focused on what was missing by the cast not physically being in a room together.

The little moments that shape a show that you take for granted, like the quick conversations in the corner over a coffee, hanging around at the end of the day to decompress after a rehearsal, discovering who the person is who cheats in the warm-up games. I was so aware of absence.

It dawned on me one day that my focus was pulled in the wrong direction and I started to realise that this wasn’t about what was missing, we weren’t creating a substitute for theatre. This was another thing. As soon as my head adjusted to this idea, everything felt playful again.

Warm-up games are a different beast online. Costume fittings happen in break-out rooms. The postal worker shows up to your door every day with bits of set or lighting to customise your space. You learn to cope with green walls. You find yourself working with people for weeks and one day you realise you don’t know how tall they are.

The first time I performed live in front of a virtual audience was a gorgeous moment. The minute I saw the audience on board and joining in I felt like I could cry. It felt familiar and comforting. One of the greatest things about our job is meeting and working with new people.

I have genuinely ‘virtually’ met and worked with some incredible people on this medium. Our paths may not have crossed without this. I look forward to meeting them for real someday in the future. 

CM: These kinds of performances were mostly inspired by lockdown, but do you think there will be space for them to continue in a post-COVID world?
NH: Absolutely. There is a space for it and it should continue for so many reasons. It’s another venue and a means to watch live performances.

We’ve had families, who are plotted across the globe, book screens so they can all attend a show together. We’ve had audiences attend post show discussions and share their personal stories as to why attending theatre is not an option for them, be it health reasons, personal anxieties, changes in life circumstances, physical limitations, the list has been endless.

For these people, live performances on digital platforms has been a solution to accessing arts. We have the opportunity to tell stories in a different and nuanced way via this platform. I’m excited to see where it could go. We need and should strive for all the options. 

CM: For those in the world of performing arts, it’s been a precarious year. How different would your year have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened? How have you managed to cope with the situation professionally?
NH: This year would have been one of my busiest to date with some lovely travel to new places. Like for so many, the diary pretty much cleared overnight and the impending sense of doom was quick to follow.

Our industry really is on its knees at the moment and it can be difficult at times not to get overwhelmed by that. At the beginning of lockdown I just put myself out there and showed a willingness to learn and a want to adapt quickly. Maybe it was me trying to cope and distract myself at the time but it’s been a gradual and steady return to work and new discoveries.

I don’t know what is around the corner professionally, I’m very grateful for work that comes my way. I suppose the best way I’ve managed to cope professionally is by minding my own mental health. I try and remind myself that my worth is not dependant on me being an actor or whether or not I’m working. It brings so much joy and pleasure to my life but the ground is always too shaky to wrap my entire identity in that. 

CM: Do you feel as though the industry as a whole will fully recover from this? 
NH: We are losing workers, companies and theatres by the day. To say it would recover would be a disservice to those people and companies.

It will be changed and some of the changes will be for the better. Now is the time to pay attention to the people in power who champion our work and our contributions to society. 

As an industry I hope we apply the lessons presented in the past seven months. We need more transparency, we need to continue to grow our voices and keep the fire in our bellies, we need to stand for safe workspaces and we need to stand for inclusive casting and employment.

CM: How did you come to be working in the arts? Was it always your ambition? 
NH: At the age of six I made the decision I wanted to be an actor, I signed up to a local drama group and by Christmas I was performing in panto in our local 1000-seater venue. It’s sadly gone now but I have such fond memories of the place. That was me hooked.

I stayed with the drama group for ten years or so, we’d do two or three shows a year and when I left I kept looking for my next hit, like a theatre addict. I studied, did some training and that was that, it was my job. I don’t really remember a time in my life without the arts. I recognise I’m privileged for that and grateful that my parents recognised the value and introduced me to it.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in stage management, directing, crew, lighting and costume, but I always return to acting, albeit every time with an ever-growing respect for my friends and colleagues that boss those jobs! 

At the age of ten I also decided I would do the odd bit of archaeology as a sideline job to the acting, but the archaeology dream hasn’t quite worked out!

CM: What aims do you have for your career in the long term? 
NH: To continue to say yes to projects that I love. To say no to projects that don’t fit with me for whatever reason that may be. To do more theatre, to do more film and TV… to just do more and with the great people. I wish to always trust my gut and follow it. The younger version of myself didn’t do that but I’m learning as I grow older. Lady Macbeth would have perhaps answered fame and fortune, I suppose a little fortune wouldn’t go amiss.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
NH: I hope to spend a little time on a script commission I received this year. Apart from that my time is my own again until an opportunity to audition or be cast in something. So I suppose I’m saying, I’ll be free again and on the hunt for work! 

Nicky Harley plays Lady Macbeth in Big Telly Theatre Company’s digital reboot of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. It headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival from 14–17 October then has a ‘virtual transfer’ as a co-production with Creation Theatre from 21-31 Oct.

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