Macbeth at the Albery - The Inside Story

Last Update: 13 November 2002

"Thou shag-haired villain!": Ian Pirie plays Seyton as an assassin

Ian Pirie has sung in West End musicals and played villains on TV and film but this is his first ever Shakespeare role. Seyton is normally a minor role but he plays an important part in this production.  

How have you developed the role of Seyton in this production?
The Director has given Seyton a stronger through-line by making him Macbeth’s personal assassin responsible for the murders of Banquo and Macduff’s family. He’s also added a moment when Seyton kills the first two murderers as punishment for letting Fleance escape. Seyton still doesn’t say much but he's on stage much more so you never know quite what he's thinking, whether he's going to kill you or leave you alone. When you have so few lines to get your point across you have to know exactly where you're coming from. I tend to work from the outside in and go for the look of the person. They’ve given me a three-quarter length leather coat in the style of an SS officer with a T-shirt and boots - half regimental, half gutteral. Most people in this play are lords or "thanes" but Seyton is more streetwise, more working-class if you like, having made his way up to be in with the new King and this look reflects his position. I'm also using my native Scottish accent which as well as having a hard edge sets me apart from the rest of the cast who are English.

How do you see Seyton's relationship with Macbeth?
Macbeth treats Seyton as a master would treat his dog: "Go fetch my bone; sit there till I want you; run after this, run after that; if you're naughty I'll give you a slap!", but I think Seyton is almost in love with this King, he idolises him. He sees something to aspire to in Macbeth; a warrior who is tougher than other warriors, who has killed those who are higher up than him and is making his way to the top through violence. He sees him as being a master politician who'll say one thing and mean another. I'm not saying Seyton is a nice person, he's not, but my job is to be him, not to judge him.

What were your ideas for the scene when Macduff's family is murdered?
This is one of the most shocking scenes in the play but the Director didn't want to fight shy of it, he wanted the audience to be shown the real consequences of Macbeth's actions. One afternoon I was at home with my son remembering how we used to have fun fights and I tried to imagine what would happen if I was the type of person that Seyton is with his life in my hands? One minute he thinks I'm playing and the next minute it's up to me whether I actually want to kill him. There's probably a standard way of playing the scene, aggressive and bullish, but I wanted to explore the idea of Seyton as a cold, premeditated assasin who is so used to killing as a job of work that he almost forgets he's stabbing the boy he's playing with.

How did you translate your ideas onto the stage?
When we came to rehearse the scene I picked Macduff's son up and sat him on my knee like a puppet. He's very small and I have the strength to pull him about a bit like a rag doll. I was roughing his hair and having fun with him at the same time as sticking the dagger in his back. The audience can't see I'm doing that until he says "he has killed me mother" and I withdraw the dagger. I'm laughing through my lines to the boy ("what you egg, young fry of treachery") apparently having a good time with him, and the murder is automatic; just something I have to do.

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