Time Traveling With Lady Macbeth: "Dr. Who" Star on Witches, Sex Appeal and Co-Starring With Kenneth Branagh

Alex Kingston, who is starring as Lady Macbeth alongside Kenneth Branagh at the Park Avenue Armory, talks with Playbill.com about making her New York stage debut in Shakespeare's Scottish Play.

Alex Kingston
Alex Kingston (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

*

Alex Kingston is going big or going home. Performing in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, playing the complex role of Lady Macbeth alongside the British Shakespeare star Kenneth Branagh as the Thane of Cawdor in an immersive production of Shakespeare's tragedy, Kingston is making an ambitious New York stage debut.

Known to TV fans as Elizabeth Corday on the NBC drama "ER," and more recently as River Song on the BBC science fiction show "Dr. Who," Kingston returns to the ambitious, athletic production that features lengthy sword fights as well as actual fire, rain and mud, following its 2013 production in the Manchester International Festival. 

Kingston, whose work includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as well as the films "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders" and the the mini-series "Lost in Austen," talked with Playbill.com about finding the humanity within her character, what Lady Macbeth would do if she could time travel and more.

* You starred as Lady Macbeth in the original production in Manchester. What has your experience been returning to the play a year later?
Alex Kingston: It's the same production, but it's also totally different from last year. It's exciting because as much as it feels like we're putting on sort of a nice familiar piece of clothing, at the same time, it's like, "Oh my goodness — it's a completely different fit." It's exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Macbeth was staged in a deconsecrated Romanesque church as part of the Manchester International Festival. The Park Avenue Armory is 55,000 square feet — a slightly bigger performance venue.
AK: It's interesting because it feels like less of a piece of theatre or theatrical performance in a way. There are associations with doing a play, which are being in a theatre. And this [is] sort of arena... I'm still kind of finding my way in terms of how to compensate and deal with that, actually. Certainly the original performance, even though we were in a church, it was an incredibly intimate space. We had a very limited audience capacity, so it definitely was a completely different production in that respect. So our job is to, within our performance space, still try and retain that intimacy and retain that very immediate connection that the audience had with the play and with the characters.

The play brings the elements of nature into the Armory  dirt, rain and fire. It's also very violent; the audience gets to see the battles rather than hear the characters discuss them.
AK: When we were teching, it was the first time that I saw the very spectacular opening scene. I had never seen it. I'm onstage, but my back is turned. I could hear everything that was going on. I was so longing to turn around, but I couldn't. Yesterday for the first time in tech, I decided I was actually going to turn around and watch them. It was fantastic. I feel like I've now at least got to experience what the audience is going to experience.

Kingston in Macbeth.
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Lady Macbeth is such a fascinating woman who can be performed in so many different ways. How did you go about developing the character?
AK: All I will say is that I'd never played this role before. I studied it at school. So when Ken wanted to meet me to talk about the role — I guess deciding or trying to form his company — I just sort of thought, I have to be honest with him as to how I see the character. I've always felt that my sense of her, my particular interpretation of her, is a little different to interpretations that I've seen in the past or the immediate association that a person in the public might have with the name Lady Macbeth. And so I thought, I'll be honest with him and if it's not how he sees the role, then that's all well and good. This isn't the production for me. The great thing was that he and I seem to be very much on the same page when it came down to who these two characters are and what their relationship is. It was great. It was incredibly instinctive, and we sort of set off on the right path from the very beginning. Essentially, I don't see either of them as bad people at the beginning of the play. I think they're people who, if they had chosen a different path, they would have been a really great couple, a great king and queen potentially at the beginning of the play. He's certainly described at the beginning of the play as a wonderful soldier, an honest soldier, hard working... It's just they're presented with this choice. And they make the wrong choice, and that leads them ultimately down the path of destruction and tragedy. But people, schoolchildren, if they study Macbeth, they come away thinking, "Ooh, they're the epitome of evil," and I just don't see these characters in that way. And I'm hoping that by the end of the performance the audience will also maybe revisit their feelings about these characters.

You're co-starring with one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time. How did you and Kenneth Branagh develop the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?
AK: I don't quite know how to describe how we developed it; it just sort of happened. They're very loving. They care for each other and love each other deeply and would do anything for each other — and do, ultimately... She and her husband have a very physical, passionate relationship. And certainly I think the beginning of the play we want people to know that. They really are connected, they love each other, they are attracted to each other... She's an equal partner in the relationship. Even though our production is a traditional production in its setting, their relationship is one of equality. And they value each other's opinions and take care of one another.

I think that's her tragedy — when she starts to become shut out by him, that's when I think one slowly sort of sees her demise because they need each other. She needs him desperately. And he realizes in the end, when she's gone, what's left in his life? I think it's a kind of very tragic love story in a way.

Kingston in Macbeth.
Photo by Stephanie Berger

It's fascinating to watch the way Lady Macbeth's choices affect her and how she changes as the play goes on.
AK: I feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for what happens to her and what happens to him ultimately. It's very human. If one could apply the equivalent and say, "If somebody approached you and said, 'I'm going to give you the winning numbers to tomorrow's lottery and you're going to get $150 million, but in order to do that you have to do this one little thing for me'" — it could be something as simple as don't turn the gas oven off — something that is going to be hugely destructive to a person. Of course, I wouldn't do anything like that because I'm not that person. But at the same time, one can be tempted... if you're given the chance to have something that you've always desired, and Macbeth desires that crown, that power. They're a childless couple; they've lost a child. They know that they're no longer of the age when they can have children. So they have no legacy. What better way to have a legacy than try to be king and queen? But it's not as easy as they think it's going to be.

There have been so many productions of Macbeth recently, both in America and in England. What is it about this play that speaks to so many people?
AK: I think what's so amazing about Shakespeare, and people say it all the time — the human element in his plays, human relationships — absolutely apply today as they did back then. We have not moved on in terms of no matter how sophisticated we think we might be as a society now; we are no different in terms of our fundamental feelings and actions as society was way back then.

But also one has to sort of remember this was at a time [when] King James was in power in England and he burnt and executed more women as witches than any other monarch in England. And so it was a time when people really believed in witchcraft and were paranoid, and that sort of was part of the fabric of everybody's lives: that intense belief in spirits and the power of good and evil and somebody hexing you.

In a funny sort of way it's not too dissimilar to the paranoia of terrorism we have now. There were innocent, innocent people who just because they looked a little strange or decided they wanted to live solitary lives, were thought of as being witches and were taken away and burnt. I think that when she reads the letter and these three weird sisters who absolutely are witches are promising that this is what's going to happen — then, my God, you're going to believe it. Because why wouldn't you? That's your world. They have no choice in a funny sort of way, because of the belief system of that time. There are very strong elements and it's one that one has to sort of remember, and it applies to that particular time when he wrote the play.

Time travel is a huge part of "Dr. Who." If Lady Macbeth could time travel, what would she do differently?
AK: She'd go back. She'd go back and she would stop her husband from doing what he does. I think if she had the opportunity, by the end, after the banquet scene — that's the last moment that they are together — she would start over and just want to have the life they had before. (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)