Actor And Writer Christine Mackie Brings her LEAR To Manchester And Liverpool

Theatre holds up a mirror to society – and what we learned about society during Covid was that everybody needed and wanted kindness and creativity
June 7, 2023

On the eve of a new interpretation of Lear opening at Hope Mill Theatre from Unseemly Women, HER Productions and Girl Gang Manchester, MagNorth had the audacity to interrupt Actor and Writer Christine Mackie who plays the lead in this all female production in Manchester, opening on 7 June, before transferring to Shakespeare North’s Cockpit Theatre later in the month.

Our some-time Weatherfield GP has been up since the crack-of-dawn – and living in Lancaster she was in the process of ‘getting rid’ of her whippet (not in a pillow-slip over the head type-of-way) before heading to Manchester to meet up with the cast. On that basis alone I thought it might not be a good idea to ask for a bit of medical advice…

Thankfully Ms. Mackie is full of life: “It’s very exciting. I’ve known about playing Lear for quite a while – and it’s been a long build-up.”

You’ve got a stellar TV career to date, (note to self: don’t mention Coronation St) but you also seem very at home in Northern Theatres?

“Absolutely, The Dukes in Lancaster was my first job in 1979. The audition was in London and when I joined the company and came to Lancaster I thought: 'Oh My God' – it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. I grew up in the Fens.

“Lancaster is a creative little town. My family are from Yorkshire originally but I grew up in Norfolk and feel like I’ve been called back to the North. It’s so rich.”

And have you done lots of Shakespeare previously?

“I’ve done six, which perhaps isn’t a lot compared to some people – but in comparison to today, when the opportunity to be in a Shakespeare is slight – because many theatres can’t afford to mount the productions and there are fewer Reps and fewer places that will have Shakespeare in their repertoire.

“My first Shakespeare was up here in Lancaster – I did Midsummer and Comedy of Errors. It was fantastic. I’m allowed to ‘play out at night’ – and run around in these fantastic costumes. I think the ‘playing’ of plays is sometimes forgotten. Playing is absolutely central. If there isn’t an atmosphere in which one can be playful – it can be a slog – and it shouldn’t be.”

Can we just touch briefly on what’s happening more widely with support for regional performing arts – and the arts in general? What’s your view of what’s happened in Oldham?

“I’ve been supporting mates of mine who’ve worked there for years – and I was at The Coliseum in 2018 with an all-women version of Whiskey Galore.

“You would walk into Oldham and you’d get this kind of community, company hug. It was so full of good stuff, good intentions, good people, good work, good ethos. I went to the final show at the end of March and it was just heart-breaking.”

Regional theatre is really up against it. Are you concerned it won’t just be Oldham?

“I’m old enough to remember ‘The Glory of the Garden’ which was an Arts Council (ACE) policy in Thatcher’s time or just after  – the idea that there would only be theatre in places of excellence. That’s not what theatre is about. However as an example The Dukes is much reduced in terms of activity now. There would be a large team in the past. A  full season of work, a theatre and education company. Full stage management team. Full carpentry crew. Wardrobe dept. – but everything is slimmed down now – but it’s still there – and that’s because people love it and it’s a place from which fantastic outreach work happens.

“Theatre holds up a mirror to society – and what we learned about society during Covid was that everybody needed and wanted kindness and creativity. We were all doing things, trying things, making things, sharing things, building things, writing things, singing things, and now its all over, we seem to be squishing everything – and it seems all of those soft skills, those values – are not valued. It really does worry me.

“One of the things that makes me so happy with this show is it’s a predominantly young company – there are two recent graduates – and it makes my heart sing. The opportunity to be in a company of twelve people is so rare now. Most shows are 2 handers or 4 handers and that’s it. I’m not saying few people is bad and more is good – but the variety and breadth of work you can offer is being slimmed down, so you end up with only the big companies being able to mount colossally fantastic shows.

Switching to writing: Best Girl is an amazing piece of work – and I’m afraid I haven’t seen KIN, but it’s moving audiences too.

“They’ve both been really interesting for me – and not something I’d anticipated doing. I have two daughters, both work in the arts. Lois was working at Hope Mill and said I’ve got 20 minutes in a Scratch Night – what shall I do?

“I’m all for Scratch Nights – they’re such an opportunity to try things out – so I said I’ll write something and the miracle is she said ‘okay’ – so what I ended up writing was what eventually became the ending of Best Girl.

Kayleigh Hawkins, who is the Lear Director – directed Best Girl – and it was just terrific actually. It really resonated with lots of people – so the next day Lois and I booked it into Manchester Fringe – so that I WOULD write the play.

“It was one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve had – and I have to say thank you to Hope Mill for initiating that. The notion of making ones own work hadn’t occurred to me.

Best Girl is semi-autobiographical, which was very interesting for me to find a way to talk about ones past. That really resonated too – and Lois and I had an enormous hoot – and that felt like an enormous privilege to spend time with your child in a professional way. We had such fun and laughed like drains. After we did Manchester Fringe where it got nominated for a few things – then we took it to Edinburgh and ran for the entire festival at the Pleasance – and then it was Covid. An important moment in my life."

You’re obviously committed to women’s stories – and older women’s stories being told – was this a factor in you joining this project – and do you feel that these are still underrepresented voices in theatre – and in society?

“There’s a number of things. I was aware of the previous Shakespeare they’ve done so I’m a fan of their work [Unseemly Women] – and I trust Kayleigh very much and would look for any opportunity to work with Kayleigh.

“In the 80s I worked in a women’s socialist feminist theatre company called the Women’s Theatre Group – so I’ve worked in all-women companies before and enjoyed that – and I am a fan of women being given the stage and being able to tell stories with who they are – informing the telling.

“Back to theatre holding up a mirror: our society consists of people who deserve to be acknowledged, and seen and heard and included – and we have on the stage – that society, so what’s not to want to be part of that? Also in an actor-ego kind of way – there aren’t many people who are asked to play Lear and I was so astonished to be asked – and I wanted to be in!

“Kayleigh sent me what she had – and I learned the first scene and just fell in love with the words.

“And it’s the most gripping play. It's got everything in it.”

And the subject matter seems particularly timely?

“It is. That’s what’s so astonishing about the [Shakespeare] plays – they stand up to interpretation. Our Lear has a contemporary feel. Those that rule – and those that have to get on with their lives. There will be things in Lear that absolutely will resonate with the here and now.”

There seems to be an increasing appetite for productions that mix up ‘traditional’ gender roles – and the re-examining and interpretation of (often sacrosanct) historical plays feels right? What’s your view personally – and how is the move viewed more widely in the industry and from audiences?

Sarah Siddons played Hamlet in the 1700s. Women have always wanted to be centre stage in the arts I’m sure. All of Shakespeare’s writing is ripe for investigation, but what’s been happening in the last 30 years – Fiona Shaw playing Richard II for example – isn’t token.

“Although my life experience is very different to Antony Sher’s when he was approaching doing Lear, we bring to it who we are, what we’ve come from – and mine is as a woman in her late 60s who is a Mother who understands what it is like to make decisions and see the consequences of them – and recognise that decisions that are mistakes are very hard to rectify – so there are lots of relatable things that an actor can bring to the part. It’s who you are.

“We’ve had some very interesting interpretations – obviously Maxine Peake at the [Royal] Exchange with Hamlet – and inside that production – you also had Polonius played by a woman – as a woman. And recently at HOME, Tracy-Ann Oberman playing Shylock. [In the Merchant of Venice.] We’ve just had a female Richard III at Liverpool Everyman. This is not just a gimmick.

“In our production there wont be a changing of pronouns – so I will be the Father. But I think the audience will be ‘in’ and they’ll follow the people on the stage.

“I think there will be moments that will be informed by the fact that I look like a female Lear as opposed to a male Lear when I am talking to my daughters. It’s a complicated subject in some ways, but in another it isn’t at all. It's about people who can perform – performing.

“In my head I have a clear picture of my Lear – and my Lear is not predominantly male or female – but I am the person I look like. I don’t mind blurry. The intention will be clear – that’s where the clarity will be.”

So…LearShakespeare North after Hope Mill: Will this be your first time on stage there?

“Yes! I can’t wait!”

Why is it important that we have a facility like this in the North?

“It’s such a genuine and important link. It’s a fact that Shakespeare was there and wrote and played and again it gives validity to northern voices saying these words.

“In the 80s I got a job on the BBC Radio Schools Rep. We did lots of plays, etc. I was doing a ‘fairytaley’ children’s play and I was the Princess.

“When we were recording, from the control room came:”


“Can I just remind you that you are a Princess.”

“I’m a Northern Princess.”



“So for me – all accented voices saying these words are important.

“I am really hopeful about this [Lear] – and everyone is interested and positive – and I’m very giddy about the whole thing!”

And with that Ms Mackie leaves us and heads off to have some difficult conversations with her three daughters.

Lear runs at Hope Mill Theatre from 7 – 18 June and Shakespeare North Playhouse from 21 – 24 June.