Interview: Cal MacAninch – ‘The doctors thought I was having a stroke’
Plunging headlong into an emotionally and physically draining play based on a real-life tragedy, the actor explains how he nearly went over the edge
Matthew Wilkinson’s new play is intense. Such is the intensity of My Eyes Went Dark, that simply referring to it as intense will not suffice: this is a tragic case study of a man in breakdown, a modern tragedy which beats its audience with an emotional battering ram one line at a time. To offer some context, three weeks after Cal MacAninch took on the lead role, he became physically ill. The suspected-stroke kind of ill.
MacAninch (known for his roles in Mr Selfridge, The Awakening and Warriors) plays Nikolai Koslov, a Russian architect whose family die in an air accident on their way to visiting him. Koslov believes that this crash was caused by the air traffic controller on duty and so sets about plotting his revenge. The character’s pain manifests itself in a big way: resonating physically through his body with numbness and headaches, even as he struggles with the raw agony of fresh grief.
Worryingly, just before the show opened at London’s Finborough Theatre, MacAninch found that his own body was reacting to Koslov’s story in an unexpected, yet eerily familiar way. ‘The fingers in my left hand went numb,’ he says, describing the experience. ‘The numbness went up my arm and into my chest and all down my torso. I went to the doctors straight away and they thought I was maybe having a stroke. They’ve got a direct line to the stroke surgeons at the hospital, and we spoke to one of them straight away. She said she thought it was a really bad migraine, and sure enough that night I had one. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realised my character suffers from these terrible headaches. I’d developed the symptoms of my character without even realising it.’
There’s a lot to unpick in My Eyes Went Dark and a lot to feel uneasy about. It’s inspired by real events (the story of Vitaly Kaloyev), ensuring that the play cannot be written off as excessively dramatic: an air accident did happen, a man did lose his wife and children. As a father of three himself, MacAninch found the last part particularly difficult to deal with. ‘It was a really hard thing to do, to think about your dead children,’ he says. ‘I found it horrendous being away from my kids and then conjuring their deaths every day. It was pretty full on.’
So why take on such a project, such a turbulent story, which affects you long after the last audience member has left? For MacAninch, the answer was simple: he had to. But his decision to take on Koslov was not an easy one. ‘I read the play eight times before I said yes to it. I had to go down to London. It was equity minimum wage. It wasn’t one of the big theatres, it was a pub theatre, and my agent didn’t want me to do it. But I’d read it eight times, and I said this is what I want to do.’
Ultimately, it was the quality of Matthew Wilkinson’s writing that convinced him. ‘I had met [Wilkinson] briefly, but I didn’t know him,’ he says. ‘Out of the blue I got sent this script, spoke to him on the phone and expressed how much I loved the play and what he had written. He cast me from that phone call. As an actor, these are the scripts you live for. You can go and do all sorts of TV and the scripts there are always very mixed. This is just so rich. You don’t do acting to be rich and famous: these are the words that you live to express and communicate.’
Every other character in the play is brought to life by one actress: Thusitha Jayasundera, whose own TV credits include Holby City, Doctor Foster and Silent Witness. Both actors had to work together to create a believable and affecting performance, something which MacAninch credits to her hard work. ‘It was hard for Sitha to create all the other characters because she had to bring them to life,’ says MacAninch. ‘That was a difficult rehearsal process for her, trying to make them all believable and different. For me it was a question of working through all the points in the piece and the emotional tapestry.’
Judging by the rave reviews My Eyes Went Dark received in London, both actors were clearly more than up to the task. But leaving the story behind once the curtain goes down can be tricky. ‘I don’t think it is easy to let it go especially when you have to go on stage and do it the next night,’ he says. ‘I needed a drink after every show, just to release the tension.’ But for him, the discussion it generated made it worthwhile. ‘People would want to talk about the play afterwards, about what it threw up for them, and that was very cathartic for me. It wasn’t like I was coming out furious or anything like that, but I was deeply affected by it, and it was difficult to let that go.’
The show has a full run at the Traverse, so there’s undoubtedly much more discussion to come. ‘I think the Traverse will be a great space to play in,’ he says. ‘There’s something brilliantly intimate about having it in a small place. I’m pretty sure audiences will react to it well.’ And with MacAninch being an Edinburgh resident, he’ll be close to his family, which is important for him. ‘It’ll be dead children again, but at least I’ll be at home with them.’
My Eyes Went Dark, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 5–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22). Preview 4 Aug, 2pm, £12.50 (£8.50).