Cal MacAninch is sitting in a Portobello café talking about facing up to his demons. Fifteen years ago, he’d been going through a rough time. Recognising his distress, his ex-girlfriend had signed him up for a course on forgiveness.

“My mum had died six months previously and I didn’t realise I’d gone into a sort of depression,” says the star of Mr Selfridge and Downton Abbey. “The phrase I learned was, ‘Forgiveness is giving up the need to punish.’ We go through our lives thinking, ‘They’ve wronged me, so I’m going to have to treat them like this.’ The course got you to imagine the whole room from every angle. You begin to see the stories we make up about how we’ve been wronged. Once you’ve been through all that, the world is a more joyous place.”

The question of blame and revenge is on the 52-yearold actor’s mind. He’s starring in My Eyes Went Dark, a two-hander by Matthew Wilkinson, opposite Doctor Foster star Thusitha Jayasundera. It’s about a bereaved father who seeks vengeance on the air-traffic controller he holds responsible for the accidental death of his family. Society frowns upon vigilantes, but MacAninch can’t be certain he wouldn’t react in the same way.

“Once you’ve got kids you just don’t know,” he says, thinking of his three daughters to fellow actor Shauna Macdonald. “Having children opened up a connection to the world I’d never had. No matter how much I was in love with my wife before, once I had my kids it was a new thing – a tsunami of love. So if someone wrenches that away from you, I really don’t know what I’d do.”

The play is based on a true story. In 2002, two planes collided, killing 71 people. Among them were the wife and two children of Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev. The official explanation was human error and weaknesses in the collision-avoidance system. Frustrated by the attitude of the authorities, Kaloyev went to the house of Peter Nielson, the air-traffic controller who had been on duty alone that day. He said his intention had been to confront Nielson with pictures of his dead family. Instead, he stabbed him to death. He was sentenced to eight years, later reduced to five, and released in 2007 for good behaviour.

“Writing the play, Matthew Wilkinson loved the story but found the ending unsatisfying, so in the end he flips it, so you get a form of redemption,” says MacAninch.

When it played at London’s 50-seat Finborough Theatre in 2015, critic Michael Billington observed that, “what matters is less its documentary veracity than Wilkinson’s uncanny ability to get inside the skin of a man tormented by grief.” The critic wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm, making MacAninch and Jayasundera all the more eager for it to be seen by a wider audience.

“It’s an extraordinary experience for the audience – very intense,” says MacAninch, recalling one spectator who found it too traumatic to stay to the end. “It’s pretty gruesome and brutal, but it’s just words; it’s what people’s imaginations in a small space conjure.”

All the same, it is not without some trepidation that MacAninch returns to the play. “Part of me is dreading it because I don’t want to go back to that place,” says the actor, just home from a New York run of The Judas Kiss alongside Rupert Everett. “But I saw it as a really important play. I read it eight times before I agreed to do it and every time I read it, it just got me. I’ve just got to tell this story.”

Words: Mark Fisher

Picture: Marc Brenner

My Eyes Went Dark, Traverse, 5–28 August, times vary

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