You have to forgive me for what I am about to do. I don’t do it often and I don’t do it lightly. I have been going to the theatre long enough to know the unknown actor who has three lines will dazzle you and the big name headlining the production might leave you cold (or more likely, crack under the pressure). Then again, some big names are big names for a reason. On my way to Trafalgar studios for the one off event titled “The Moment Before I am Powerful” (a series of Shakespearean monologues riffing on power), I discovered James McAvoy was in the cast. This was excellent news: a baby-faced actor with a mischievous disposition, McAvoy has a knack for reluctant superheroes and Shakespearean generals and junkie cops in meltdown and nerds and gambling addicts. And I loved his Macbeth. To put it mildly and with some restraint, I was excited.
Even so, I was quite unprepared for what happened next: this is a rehearsed reading, actors are relaxed and don’t go about it at full whack (they hardly had any rehearsal after all). Lauren O’Neil did the “Speak the speech, I pray you” from Hamlet, and Deborah Findlay was a sharply moving Volumnia, even more so than I remembered from the full production of Coriolanus last year. Paapa Essiedu materialised from under a desk (was he there the whole time?) to be a playful Mark Antony and Cynthia Erivo was beautiful as his Cleopatra.
And then, James McAvoy did Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, Act III Scene II, all the speeches from “Friends, Romans, countrymen” onwards. Off book. The words leapt in the air, and you understood them almost before you heard them. He came at it like a man thinking of his last breath. He was mesmerising, craftily playing the asides to Brutus at the same time as being heartbreaking, politically cunning and supremely commanding. It’s hard to describe the buzzing stillness of 600 people simultaneously thinking “this is amazing”.
For someone who so obviously loves and completely owns the stage, McAvoy has a rather short list of theatre credits: only 4 plays in about 15 years. Where did he learn to do what? That kind of fearlessness and pushing out to the audience, to the point that you swallow hard and your brain freezes. One thing was clear to me: he needs to do a play soon. I can only accept this performance as a down-payment, nothing else will make sense of it.
P.S. The performance was directed by Richard Fitch (because I do know these things don’t happen by themselves). Some nice work on lighting and sound. Part of the Jamie Lloyd / Trafalgar Transformed season.