James McAvoy isn’t sleeping well. The last time he appeared on the London stage, playing Macbeth two years ago, he would wake every day at 2am or 3am and find it impossible to drift off again. Now, as he returns to the Trafalgar Studios to star in Peter Barnes’s antic 1968 satire The Ruling Class, the same thing is happening.
If anything, the demands of this role are even greater than those of the Thane of Cawdor. “Macbeth was more physical than any action movie I’ve done, so I didn’t think I’d have anything to worry about,” he says, rocking back on a chair in a deserted rehearsal room. “But this has turned out more physical still. Not violent – well, sometimes it’s violent… It’ll be a massive workout, really.”
When we meet, on a bone-cold winter evening, McAvoy, 35, has been in rehearsals for a month. He looks lean and a little frayed, grey flecks in his hair. This is the first time Barnes’s play has been revived since it played the West End in 1969. The director Jamie Lloyd, who will shortly spring into the rehearsal room, rediscovered it in an anthology of Sixties plays. There was also a 1972 film version, in which Peter O’Toole took the starring role, but both Lloyd and McAvoy have tried to avoid it.
“I play football sometimes with Patrick Marber and I told him that I was doing The Ruling Class,” says McAvoy, “and he said that he’d played Jack Gurney, my part, when he was at university, when he was at Oxbridge or wherever he was. It seems that loads of drama students maybe do it, but it seems to be that professionally people are scared of doing it. But it’s the right time to tell it now.”