In Conversation With Ash Hunter

Ash took a break from rehearsing Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse to talk with Leeds Living’s Maria Forryan.  The conversation provides a delightful perspective on the man, his art and his ethos.

How are you enjoying it Up North?  Have you had the chance to explore Leeds?

I’ve been once before in my younger, partying days.  It’s nice to experience it with an older head on my shoulders!  I’ve been busy but found some lovely spots.  The pubs – the Adelphi, where the coffee’s great.  Maureen’s Caribbean Food – my family’s from Jamaica so it takes a lot to impress me and they’ve very much impressed me. Roundhay Park as well – beautiful.  There’s so much to it.  There’s a multi-cultural vibe: very nice.  One of my favourite things to do is go and sit in one of the old man pubs and just sit with the old boys.  The vibe is lovely.

Different from the party days then?

Yes, a little bit!  I move slower nowadays; save all the energy for the stage.

Macbeth has to be one of the most sought-after roles in the theatre.  How would you describe your interpretation – have you made him a villain or a tragic hero?

It’s interesting because I was approached to perform in this production because Amy (Leach – Director) had heard about my role as Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) at the National Theatre.  Casting had seen something in it that they wanted to bring.  That was in 2022.  In the last two years, I’ve lived a lot of life; gained a lot of experience in and outside of work.
For my version, it was always important for me to create something multi-dimensional and seeing the man as he was but also the potential he has before he starts to break and twist and form into this new thing.  So really examining the back story and influences from my own life:  Where does he come from?  Where does this desire come from?  But also a big focus on the relationship with Lady M, as I think sometimes it can be misinterpreted that she’s this really manipulative force that forces this good-hearted man into…. I think he does have a good heart, but there has to be a reason why, when he is faced with these prophecies, that he does want to chase them – and of course there are a few times he wants to back out, because I do think he errs on the side of good and wants to be a good man.  The idea of what that is and wondering whether it is to do with certain kinds of abuses that he had when he was younger, his relationship with his father – stuff like that – the kind of things you add to give more weight to what’s already there, but also seeing that there’s something there in him that’s there to be changed.

So there’s obviously a darkness in him – who is the man when he’s on the battlefield? The difference is already there and you’re seeing after battle he’s the man everyone wants to be around and enjoy.  But the story they tell of him, that he wins the battle by himself, there’s an animal there as well, so when the witches come, they speak to the animal side of him that wants to battle; wants to fight.  

We played with that desire between him and Lady M as if they’ve come up together and that’s something they both want, with still his desire to be a good and honourable man that fights against it.  You want to create that, so in the second half, when he twists and goes towards the magical and witchcraft, and starts to invoke spirits and hell, to see a man break and try to become this inhuman thing is where the tragedy comes from.

Also, the splitting of him and Lady M is where we really do delve into how close the relationship is at first.  Various points show how they’re already splitting – they’ve just lost a child and what that does and in our version, losing the child brings them closer together.  So when later on you see that Macbeth starts to manoeuvre on his own and not let Lady M in, it becomes more heartbreaking.  He’s the person that is the physical aspect and she’s the mental, the one with the ideas, so that when he starts to ignore her or put her to the side, thinking he knows best, that’s when it all starts to go wrong really.  When they’re together they’re stronger, but when they separate it all falls to pieces.

Have you been able to put your own spin on the role this time, compared to when this production was first on at Leeds Playhouse in 2022?

That was the point, the reason why I took it, because I wanted it to be my version. There are six members of the old cast who are still in it, but four who are new, including Banquo (Daniel Poyser), which means I can create a completely new relationship with him especially.  I connected with Jess (Jessica Baglow, Lady M) very quickly and want these two people to almost cling to each other like lifebelts.  I was really intrigued to see what would happen when you see them needing each other – a visceral need – then the heartbreak of how that changes.  You want it to be a human story so it does break your heart.

There’s also the duality of the character: when you see him falling and becoming a monster, you feel the pain because it didn’t have to be this way.  It’s very important for people to connect with him and exciting to have the chance to see a Macbeth that looks like me, that doesn’t speak in R.P. (received pronunciation), especially in such an accessible production.

A ton of prep has gone into this production.  Amy had just me and Jess in for a week, just creating our relationship.  I knew they’d had this process before, so I thought I’d give myself a head start, so I spent three weeks in my kitchen, not the most comfortable room in my house, just really freezing so no sitting down and being distracted.  So I was off book before we even started.  It was really useful.

You really spent time getting under the skin of the character then.

Yes.  We did some mirroring exercises with Amy on the first day and it showed that Jess and I, at this point in our lives, are really open to expressing a closeness already, even though we’d only just met.  It’s really interesting.  It comes with experiences, maybe just life experience.  We’re already creating a narrative, not to compare the two productions but with this one, there’s a real visceral nature: that we are really all that each other has.  That expands into why people appreciate and respect them at first.  Even though they don’t have a family like other people, it exposes them that they can’t have children.

Jessica Baglow (Lady Macbeth) with Ash Hunter (Macbeth)

You’re going to have a lot of high school students coming to see this production.  Do you think it will appeal to teenagers?  Can they relate to something that’s now 400 years old?

The way the production is built, 100%.  It’s virtually cinematic anyway: lighting, staging –  just like watching a movie. I’m from a working-class background and this idea of wanting something, to get out of the world you’re in, into something better – this guy hears a prophecy and realises he could have that.

That anyone can achieve.

Exactly.  I could be better than I am.  Macbeth doesn’t start off being in line for King but he then becomes King and does it through work.
Just not perhaps the best way to go about it!

Yeah! He maybe needed a little bit more guidance!

You trained at the Central School of Speech & Drama.  Was there a particular emphasis on Shakespeare there?  (I know you’ve been involved in musicals too; playing Alexander Hamilton in the West End.)

I didn’t have the best time there.  I ended up leaving early.  I think they’re doing better now but then, they didn’t really know how to support people who didn’t have that background.  I hadn’t seen much Shakespeare, let alone done any, and the learning has come from the industry, from the people on the job.

You did Anthony & Cleopatra as well.

Yes, with the RSC – and that was a massive learning curve as it was the first time. We toured Stratford, Miami and New York for five months.  I learned from some of the best.  I didn’t realise how important studying Shakespeare would be to me, the skills you learn, and here I am still doing it and in one of the most coveted roles.  A black kid from London, I find myself in period roles all the time.  It’s kind of blown me away, the kind of work I’ve got to do.  You’re shown it is for you and can be spoken in your voice.

No accent, then?

No.  A lot of the people are from Leeds and Yorkshire.  Amy wants accents to be legitimate.  Your character.

You have a lot of experience performing on both stage and screen.  Do you have any particular preference?

Macbeth came after the National and Grenfell – in the words of survivors and then Alma’s not normal (BBC Manchester), which felt really nice after the dark of Grenfell.  After this, I’ll be in New York. I’ve done the best stuff with the best people.  You think that’s it for now: where do you go from here?  This is the best at Leeds Playhouse.  I mean, I was hearing about it when it was West Yorkshire Playhouse and always wanted to be up here and working with Amy. Then I’m working with Philippa Lloyd and then I think it’s good to get back to some screen stuff.

Macbeth Director Amy Leach with the young Company.

Do you have the rest of this year planned out then fully in advance?

Last year it was more like everything just seemed to fit in – get a TV job, then Grenfell, then Alma’s Not Normal, then Macbeth.  Sometimes it happens like that. New York finishes in June this year, but I have purposefully left it clear after that because my agent suggests I give myself some free time and my girlfriend wants to see me!  So imagine that!

I teach A level Drama at Elliott Hudson College in Leeds and many of my students are interested in pursuing a career in acting.  They have very similar backgrounds to yours.  What’s the best bit of advice you could offer them? (I’m putting you on the spot.)

For me, it’s taken a long time to realise – have the belief that you can do it, and for me that came from experience. It took me a while to really believe.  I don’t think that was instilled in me in the way it could have been. It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do, which I love! Because if I’d had the right people I would have known I could do it, not just Shakespeare. Back then, there wasn’t this resurge in working class actors.  At that time, they only wanted to see you for one thing, though they would respect you in that way.

Also, another bit of advice is having a real understanding that putting in the work really does matter and really helps. Here I am and I got here – well, if I’d known that doing the work, doing the research if you’re working with a character, really getting your head into the space, doing anything that makes you feel that you embody it……

Spending three weeks in the kitchen…..

Exactly!  Standing in the cold in the kitchen. You’re giving yourself the tools so that the weird imposter syndrome goes away. What’s come to me recently is that everyone has access to human emotions.  All those things are tools, so never feel you’re not good enough because a lot of my experience comes from the years of caring for my Mum before she passed.  A lot of the things I thought were negative about my life have actually turned out to be things that I can turn into beautiful things for the work I’m doing.  I think putting the work in really pays.  A lot of people I know work really hard.  For the first time in my life, I’m realising these things, so if I’d done that earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been so cheeky!  When you’re younger, you don’t want to put in all that work and have a fear of failure.

Do you recommend drama schools now?

I don’t see them as necessary as I thought before and drama school in terms of the old school definition.  There are more places now to go and be seen; to gain experience and to find an agent.  The ethos has changed, especially to the benefit of the working class and ethnic minority actors, to all the people who felt they were disenfranchised before.  I think they are all catered for – all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.  Drama school is useful; it gives you the tools.  If you have access though, then training on the job does the same.

It’s really important that we’re making theatre accessible for all and it’s not just elitist.

That was one of the big draws about coming up here, knowing what it’s about, speaking to Amy and sharing her ethos. Leeds Playhouse is the world leader in accessibility.  We have people observing, internships.  Akinsole is a lovely man. He was a bio-chemist and lost his sight.  He’s now involved very deeply in what we’re doing. In our cast, we have hard of hearing, blind people, people with different needs that are all met, so it’s important to feel that, and show all different types and ways of manoeuvring through the world.  If I’d seen it when I was younger, it would have meant a lot, so I’m happy that it seems to be changing.  There’s a lot more to be done. Leeds Playhouse definitely seems to be a pioneer in this area.

So, a lot of students will be descending on you in the coming weeks to watch your new version of Macbeth.

Exciting.  The version we’re doing is big and brutal and heartbreaking.  From what I’ve heard about the last iteration, and it’s all good, is that everyone wants to push it further, to do more.  People have done it, gone away for two years and now want to do more.  I’m happy to be part of that.  The conversation has been about what do you feel – and I’ve been told there’s a lot of emotion in my iteration – a man who is journeying between joy and despair, heartbreak and nihilism.

You’ve built up an exciting role now so I’m going to have to check it out!

Yeah yeah yeah!  Give me a call after!

I’ve only been able to access the part because of the space that’s been created and it’s a really joyous, equal space.  Coming to where people have done this before and being made to feel comfortable.

It’s so nice to hear you say this about something that is in Leeds.

Yes, it says a lot about the place. The ethos is palpable.  Brilliant.  Can’t wait.

You’ll always get these Shakespeare fans in the audience who will tell you when you’ve got a line wrong though

They won’t be worse than when I was doing Hamilton.  Everyone knows every word!

You’ve had some big shoes to fill!

Hamilton, Heathcliff and now Macbeth.  I feel very lucky.

Thank you so much for your time Ash.  I’m really excited to see the performance.

Thank you for this.  It’s been a lovely conversation.  Brilliant vibe.

From all of us at Leeds Living, we wish you good luck and I hope you find the Leeds audience welcoming and engaged. Hopefully, you’ll want to come back and perform in the area again!

Main image: Ash Hunter in rehearsals for Macbeth. All photography by Mike Pinches.

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