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Macbeth : Playing Peter Macduff

Six years after playing Angus at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Richard Armitage returned to Macbeth, this time playing the larger role of Macduff in a modern retelling of the story.

“The idea was to find a contemporary situation and environment where you have a hierarchy, a killer instinct, and a cut-throat, hothouse atmosphere. There are few places in modern society where you have such a strict hierarchy, but the professional kitchen does,” he said. [1]

Peter Macduff, as played by Richard Armitage, is the experienced Head Waiter, standing in the shadows, dressed to merge into them, the definition of unobtrusive. He is all eyes and ears, ready to conjure out of the fashionable gloom the perfectly prepared (if rather gruesome) food that the restaurant is famed for, and to orchestrate the whisking away of the empty plates, all done the split second that the diners wish for it to happen. If Ella is the Director of this dining experience, Macduff is the Producer, or maybe even the Choreographer.

Speaking about his preparation for the role, Richard Armitage said, “I worked in Le Gavroche, with Silvano, the Head Waiter. He said that the skill of the Head Waiter is to be completely invisible and that was my starting point.” [1]

He is dedicated, loyal and grateful to Duncan – he has been with him for 15 years.

When we first see him, he is an enigmatic figure, subsuming his ego to his role as Head Waiter. Much of the acting is done with his eyes and his body. The watchful, knowing observation that tells him exactly when his diners are ready to be served makes him read the signals in those around him: Joe and Ella Macbeth in particular.

The eyes are the windows of Peter Macduff’s soul when Joe and Ella are pleading for witnesses to Duncan’s murder – he does not have to call out ‘Look to the Lady’, just murmur ‘Amazing woman!’ as he stands next to a bewildered Banquo at the press conference.

From that time, we see him working through his suspicions, and paying the tragic price; and then as the revenger, all reserve and restraint abandoned in terrifying violence.

This performance is a physical one. Richard Armitage’s skill in using his body to convey emotion, in a part with few but significant words, is used to the full. This skill is most evident when he is told of the murder of his wife and children, in long shot, the slow loss of control over his body being a very moving image of the sense of total loss he experienced at that moment.

In the final scene, he is Joe Macbeth’s nemesis, stalking him through the kitchens eerily bathed in the blue light of the fly-killers, snatching his weapon from the knife rack on the wall. He is a man with nothing more to lose, embodying vengeance. His violence is unleashed like an uncoiled spring. In an interview about a later role (Guy of Gisborne), Richard Armitage spoke about the moment on set when an actor ‘just goes for it’, losing all self-consciousness, and throwing his whole body into the action: this is what we see here, and the contrast with his previous stillness and watchfulness is stunning. This is a satisfying and very effective performance in a short but telling role.


[1] The Times, 10th September 2005: “The Knowledge Q&A"

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