Edinburgh’s Sarah MacRae enters the Shieldlands

Sarah MacRae as Saray
Sarah MacRae as Saray
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AS anyone familiar with ITV’s Sunday night prime time drama Beowulf knows, life in the Shieldlands, a mythical place populated by humans and fantastical creatures, is a difficult one.

Loosely based on the old English epic poem, the 13-part series tells the story of the warrior Beowulf who, after many years wandering as a mercenary, returns to Herot, his home, to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane, Hrothgar - the man who raised him.

As a complex web of greed, betrayal and revenge is unravelled, political undercurrents, epic battles and duplicitous dealings come together, Beowulf sets out on a journey to reconnect with his people.

Sunday’s episode sees Saray, a ‘gentle-woman’ who is not all she appears, thrown into the mix.

It’s a dream of a role for Edinburgh lass Sarah MacRae who can’t hide her delight ahead of her Beowulf debut this weekend.

“It’s so exciting,” says the 27-year-old, “and my family are all prepped too. I think they are all getting together to watch it, which will be lovely because this is my first big telly role.”

Consequently, it won’t be long before viewers see Saray holding her own in the violent world she inhabits.

Fans of the series be warned, there are spoilers ahead.

“Saray is an interesting one. She has a lot going on,” says MacRae, who hails from Newington.

She’s had quite a difficult upbringing and is trying to move away from that. Her conscience is in play.

“But as she is trying to be a better person, she falls for someone who tries to get her to go back to her bad roots.

“And the great thing is, you don’t quiet know which way she is going to go.”

The actress won the role after being spotted on stage by a casting director. An audition followed and the part was hers.

“I didn’t know much about Beowulf,” she admits. “Some people I knew had read it at school and I’d vaguely heard of the film that came out years ago, but that was about it.”

Luckily, producers had decided just to use the original as a starting point on which to build, so an intimate knowledge of the text was not vital.

“When I read the script I discovered it was all about power and land, and all those things that are always interesting,” she smiles.

That the ultimate power is held by a female was an added attraction. Indeed, the drama is peopled with strong women.

“It’s just so nice to have a part for a woman that has so much going on,” agrees the actress.

“In period pieces in the past, it has so often been the case that the women are just there to ask their men what they are thinking.

“Or to stand and court them when they come back from battle, whereas Saray is so much part of it all.”

Filmed in the second half of last year, the barren wastes of the Shieldlands were created in and around Newcastle, of all places.

Casting her mind back, MacRae says, “It’s a strange one, TV is so different to theatre, you do all the work in advance and then sit tight for a while.

“After a few months pass it all comes out, and you’re like, ‘Oh! It seems like I did this ages ago’.”

One thing the 27-year-old remembers vividly, however, is the permanent set which was built in an old quarry.

“I don’t know what it was, but you’d be at the bottom of the hill going up towards the set and the sun would be shining, and the lambs would be out...

“Then, as you’d start moving up to where the set was, suddenly it was November.

“It was just mad, the place had its own weather system.”

Other locations used for the series included Hadrian’s Wall and Druridge Bay she recalls, but as stated earlier, life in the Shieldlands was hard, despite the beautiful surroundings of Northumberland.

“It was tough, but it was the crew I felt sorry for, they were the ones stood out there for 12 hours a day, no matter what the weather was doing.

“You’d think you’d be all right filming in summer but no, it was often windswept.

“There was one scene; all I had to do was walk with a horse across the back of the action... I could barely do that, the wind was so bad.”

To make matters worse, MacRae broke an ankle during one mishap.

“We had a brilliant costume designer which was great for my character as, at first, she appears to be a well-to-do lady.

“No one expects her to start poisoning or stabbing ayone.

“She had one really fun-to-do fight scene, in which I got to use two swords and a rake at one point.

“I loved all of that, but I actually broke my ankle in a scene where I wasn’t even fighting.

“Other people were fighting and I was to try to stop them... I went in. Got knocked over. Heard a crack and thought, ‘Oh no!’ ”

Luckily, the accident happened near the start of filming and, after a month to recuperate, MacRae was back to record her remaining scenes.

It was at the age of 14 that MacRae decided she wanted to be an actress.

A member of the Lyceum Youth Theatre, she also enjoyed appearing in school plays.

Her first role, at the age of 12, was that of Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a big ask for one so young, yet one her drama teacher, Julia Douglas, never doubted she could pull off.

“She was a brilliant drama teacher. When other people were going, ‘You should probably have a back up, just in case,’ she was like, ‘Nah, just go and do it.’

“Thinking about it now, she took such a gamble casting me as Grusha and I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for her, she was so sure, that she made me sure.”

MacRae’s parents, too, were supportive when they discovered their daughter’s ambition, “They were fantastic. They could have so easily gone, ‘No. Go and be a dentist or something’ but they didn’t.”

Today, her folks are her biggest fans.

“It’s nice because they do love it. They get really involved and read up on all the things I do.”

She laughs, “In fact, by the time I start a job they probably know more about it than me. They even keep scrap books - they’re much more diligent than I am.”

She muses, “It must be so strange for them, they must be thinking, ‘How did this happen?’”

Coming home regularly is important, says MacRae, revealing that one day she would love to do just that to play her dream role on the stage of the Lyceum.

“I try never to leave it too long between visits. It’s only since I moved away that I’ve realised how much I love Edinburgh.

“When you grow up somewhere, you don’t really see it, it’s only after you’ve gone that you think, ‘Oh, it’s great’.”

She confides, “You know, I would love to play Lady Macbeth... I’d love a crack at that on the Lyceum stage. Growing up, that was where I lived, watching the actors thinking, ‘One day... one day...’”

In the Shieldlands, that day has come.

Beowulf, STV, Sunday, 7pm