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Weekend: Christopher Eccleston on feeling shut out from Shakespeare but finally landing Macbeth

AS Christopher Eccleston happily points out, he has built his career on playing ‘difficult men’. Why so? ‘I’ve always perceived myself as a difficult or troubled character,’ he chuckles, ‘although I’m actually not — not much more than anyone else.’

Today, speaking over tea in a Soho club, he could hardly be more genial, even though no character has been quite as difficult as his latest: Macbeth, that treacherous soldier murdering his way to the Scottish throne. Eccleston is playing the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production, which has just transferred to the Barbican from Stratford-upon-Avon. ‘It’s called the tragedy of Macbeth, but in fact he’s like Stalin or Hitler,’ he says. ‘A monster completely without morality.’

Full of sound and fury: Christopher is relishing playing a monster without morality PICTURES: RICHARD DAVENPORT

It’s a rare stage outing for one of our most charismatic screen actors — from breakthrough performances in Shallow Grave and Our Friends In The North, to his 2005 stint in Russell T Davies’ newly rebooted Doctor Who, and more recent work like this year’s BBC family drama Come Home.

But the dream of playing Macbeth has driven his whole career, since he played the dual role of Macduff and the Sergeant in an amateur production aged 17. ‘We toured the North West, so I got an insight into what the life of an actor is, on stage and off, staying in boarding houses, drinking every night. I fell in love with the lifestyle.’ At the same time, it made him yearn to take the lead, and at the RSC specifically: ‘I felt then, and I feel now, that I have the ammunition to play him.’

Finally, a couple of years ago, after ‘a difficult time in my life and my career’, which included divorce, he emailed RSC head Gregory Doran laying bare his ambition. Doran was immediately receptive — gratifyingly, as Christopher knew time was not on his side.

‘I’m 54 and really you could play Macbeth at 18,’ he says, ‘so there is an element in our production of this being his last chance. It’s a mid-life crisis of a lunge for power.’ Audiences can expect a particularly creepy take on the play, referencing horror films like The Shining and Don’t Look Now.

‘It was the white middle classes that did Shakespeare. I was one of the thickos’

What took him so long? For much of his career, Christopher felt his working-class Salford background shut him away from Shakespearean and classical roles: ‘It was the white middle classes that did Shakespeare. I was one of the yeomanry, the thickos. That’s how it works. Class is massive in this country.’ That’s why he concentrated on opportunities in TV and film, though he still blazed a trail. More than a decade before Jodie Whittaker delighted Doctor Who fans with her Yorkshire accent, he played the time-traveller as a blunt Mancunian — so it’s no surprise he has praised Jodie’s casting, telling Radio 4: ‘She’s working class, she’s Northern, what can go wrong?”

Christopher has done Shakespeare professionally before: in 2002, he was Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. But while he was warmly received, he never felt comfortable in the role. ‘I think I did it because I thought I should,’ he says. Although much more at ease with Macbeth, he still sees the experience as a learning curve. ‘I definitely wasn’t ready when we opened. I don’t think the production was ready, for a lot of complicated reasons, and I think certainly I’m giving a much stronger performance now. I would say I’ve stopped trying too hard.’

Refreshingly, he reads all his reviews — good and bad. ‘Once I started working as an actor, I thought, “I’m running a business here, and I need to know what people are saying about the product.”’

These days he’s less worried about money than doing work he loves and devoting himself to his children, Albert and Esme. Though he flirted with blockbusters like Gone In 60 Seconds and Thor: The Dark World, Hollywood couldn’t be further from his current ambitions. ‘I’ve been there and I’ve given some dreadful performances, and that’s nobody’s fault but mine,’ he says baldly.

Instead he wants to make up for lost time by focusing on theatre and doing a play a year. Roles he fancies include Richard III, Prospero, Peer Gynt, and ‘Cyrano de Bergerac… I wouldn’t need the prosthetic for that,’ he laughs, referring to his striking nose.

There’s also a more personal project in prospect: a memoir about his late father’s decline into dementia. The forklift truck driver was a ‘very intelligent man whose job didn’t ask much of his intelligence, so there was a tremendous sense of tension and frustration in him’.

In writing the book, Christopher says: ‘I think I’m trying to bring him back to life for myself and reject this idea of “ordinary” people. He was extraordinary — it’s all about how we render people and see them.’

Until Jan 18, 2019, Barbican, London, barbican.org.uk

Death, divorce and Doctor Who…

Shallow Grave

1995

As one of a trio of young professionals dealing with a dead housemate, he was the standout in Danny Boyle’s debut thriller — thanks to the disturbing transformation of his character David, from mild-mannered accountant into madman.

Our Friends In The North

BBC, 1996

Although he was offered the role that went to Daniel Craig, he preferred to play the complex Nicky. The revered nine-parter about post-war Britain made the names of both actors, plus co-stars Mark Strong and Gina McKee.

Doctor Who

BBC, 2005

His compellingly brooding take on the man in the Tardis helped reboot the show for a new era — alas, he left after one series. ‘I couldn’t get along with the senior people,’ he revealed. ‘I didn’t agree with the way things were being run.’

Come Home

BBC, 2018

Although it wasn’t in the script, he ‘insisted’ on using a Northern Irish accent for his devastating performance as Greg in this three-part divorce drama. Why? ‘I didn’t want to sound like me. Because I had gone through [divorce].’