Macbett – June 2007


By: Eugene Ionesco, English version by Tanya Ronder

Directed by: Silviu Purcarete

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th June 2007

What a bum-number! Don’t get me wrong, great performances from all of the cast, and probably the best production we Brits are likely to get, but still, what a bum-number! At least it kept to two and a half hours, and there were some really funny bits, plus the post-show was interesting, so the evening wasn’t a complete waste (though it came as close as I can remember!).

This version of Macbeth clearly expresses Ionesco’s own antipathy to any form of totalitarian state, be it Fascist or Communist. It can be summed up quite succinctly in the quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” [Lord Acton] Duncan is a despot who rules a Dukedom in an unspecified place (OK, the play says Scotland, but this is Absurdist theatre, so nothing’s that straightforward). We actually get to see Glamiss and Candor (Cawdor) plotting their coup. They’re unhappy about how much of their wealth the King/Archduke is creaming off, particularly when it comes to chickens and eggs. There’s a mention of how many virgins he’s taken, but they do seem to come some way down the list. During their plotting session, a huge picture of the Archduke is positioned behind them, and from time to time others come on and bow reverentially. Both Banco and Macbett come on and chat to the two men, so we get to see how they fit in – they’re 110% loyal to the current ruler. Even so, Glamiss and Candor agree to rise up and overthrow the tyrant.

On the one hand, this staging does get across the situation pretty well, and there’s some humour in it. Everyone’s carrying a case of some kind – briefcase, suitcase – and the two plotters interact well with the audience. What comes across very nicely is how they move from specific personal grievances to glossing it with the idea that they’re acting “for the public good”, a typical trick of power-crazed megalomaniacs. On the other hand, we’re much more aware of state surveillance nowadays, and so any sense of real menace was sadly lacking.

The war between the two sides was reasonably entertaining. Lots of soldiers in bulky combat-type gear loped about – it’s a physical style that I found very reminiscent of Rhinoceros, years ago at Chichester. (Mind you, they probably didn’t have many options for how to move in those outfits.)  There was an Absurdist touch with a lemonade seller, wandering about, trying to sell restorative lemonade to people, and who gets into a confrontation with a killing machine, fresh from the battlefield. At least, I assume that’s what it was meant to be. The actor had lots of clunky bits of costume, and moved a bit robotically, with lines suggesting a great relish for slaughter. Various soldiers were killed, and then revived, soldiers chased each other, then swapped places – all the ways to represent mayhem and senseless bloodshed you can think of, without actually using fake blood. (Or real blood, of course.)

The bloody theme was emphasised by a duet of speeches from Macbett and Banco. I say duet, although what actually happened was that they took it in turns, each one stepping aside from the battle temporarily to reflect on the situation. Both speeches were identical, and portrayed in very similar ways. From the post-show, we learned that in France, these speeches are meant to be delivered identically (must be a nightmare if the first guy farts!), but for this production, they felt the audience would get the repetition (we did), and would appreciate the variations according to character (we did).

The speeches give numbers to those killed, and start off with a few men shot, more burned, thousands buried under rubble, millions killed in other ways, etc. The death theme is certainly given a vigorous outing here. Both men also shoot the lemonade seller. (Well, she’s groaning a bit from being beaten up by the killing machine earlier, so you can understand them just wanting a bit of peace and quiet.)

The Archduke finally turns up, accompanied by his wife, Lady Duncan. He is clutching his throne – a small chair, almost a stool, with a picture of a crown on the backrest. He cuddles this throughout the play, at least while he’s alive, and there’s an entertaining tussle over it later on when Macol comes to revenge his fathers and claim his crown from Macbett. More on that story later. The Archduke’s a complete coward, but like a lot of that type, totally critical of anyone else’s weakness. An injured soldier turns up – he’s got a spear through his middle – and they question him to find out what’s going on at the front. The soldier can’t tell them much – he was press ganged by the rebels, then captured by the Archduke’s troops and forced to fight for them. He was wounded (not by the spear, that must have come later, as if it matters in Absurdia), and when he woke up the battle had moved on. Lady Duncan is about to kill him with her knife (she’s a bloodthirsty cow, that one), but her tells her not to trouble herself, he can top himself and save her the effort. So off he goes with his grenade and blows himself up. Thoughtful of him. The Archduke’s servant and his wife’s maid also feature in this scene, and do a lovely job. The servant, so loyal he beheads himself later after bringing Duncan bad news, seems to reappear with a reattached head later, while the maid spends most of this first scene holding onto a rope that leads off behind the plush red curtain, possibly attached to her Ladyship’s horse? Who knows? She spends most of her time carrying suitcases around.

Duncan sends his wife off to the front to check on how things are going. While all around are diving for cover, she breezes in, hardly bothering to check for stray bullets, and asks for info. Banco’s there first, and tells her what he can, then swaps with Macbett. Finally the fighting’s over, Duncan’s troops have won, and Glamiss and Candor are prisoners awaiting their fate. It’s now safe for the King to arrive, which he does eventually, after many announcements that he’s just coming. (Funny at first, soon gave way to dull. Apparently that’s just how the French like it.)

The first to be brought on for execution is Candor, wrapped up in black plastic sheeting. He’s given a final speech to read out, and there’s some fun while he tries to get his hands free of the sheeting to be able to hold it, and then to be able to hold the megaphone. Megaphones are well used throughout this production, especially in the battle scenes, and at a lot of other times as well.

Now the slaughter begins. The King sentences Candor and Glamiss to have their heads cut off, together with all their followers, and he expects the executioners to make it snappy – they’re all to be done by tonight. Macbett is told to sit by the Queen/Archduchess as they watch, and he’s soon on the receiving end of her orgasmic pleasure at seeing so much bloodshed, which he thoroughly enjoys. The staging has a large white curtain at the back, behind which the King’s men disappear, emerging with heads in bags which they dump down the central pit. As each head is removed, an artistic blood spatter appears on the sheet, so pretty soon it’s more red than white, while the number of heads carried to the dump keeps increasing. We get the message.

Sadly, with all this fun on the go, the servant turns up to tell Duncan that Glamiss has escaped. This leads to the order for his execution, as mentioned before. The King is mightily unhappy, and sends Banco and Macbett off to find him asap. And so darkness descends. Literally. I don’t know if the Swan auditorium has ever been so dark during a performance before. Banco and Macbett are searching for Glamiss in the dark and in the rain, so Banco heads off to find a horse. This leaves Macbett alone, in the dark, in the countryside, and we all know what he’s likely to find in the dark, in the countryside, in a version of Macbeth, don’t we? Yes, it’s finally the witches’ turn to give us all a laugh, and they manage it very well, I must say.

The two witches are done with actual masks covering the actresses’ heads, giving them wrinkles long before their time. They also walk with a stoop, using canes, and brilliantly manage to be both old dames waiting for a bus (it’s those suitcases again), and unearthly hags. Their scene with Macbett is echoed later with Banco, but with more changes than in the earlier repeated scene, as each character is told different information. The lights do come on for a short while, in a circle enclosing the central ironwork, and this relates directly to the time when the witches are talking to Banco and Macbett. As the witches move around, we hear the voices coming from different places, and sounding more and more like Lady Duncan.

What’s good here is seeing how the two characters react to the information they’re given. We get to see how their minds work, although with this type of theatre it’s a kind of generic reasoning. They’re both warned that Duncan will refuse to give Banco his title (Glamiss), and will give it instead to Macbett, though without the land and money that should really go with it. They also inform both men that Glamiss is already dead, drowned in the river and washed into the sea. This is the start of both men’s disaffection, though for different reasons – Banco feels he’s been treated unfairly, while Macbett sees his opportunity to get the Queen for himself by taking the throne. David Troughton produced some marvellously excessive facial expressions during this part, really getting across how manic Macbett has become under the witches’ influence. There’s also a lovely bit where one witch informs Macbett that Duncan has a son, Macol, who’s away studying, and another son, Donalbain, but he doesn’t come into Macbett’s story much.

Later (and I’ve lost track of what happens when by this time), we see the witches appear at the back and transform themselves into Lady Duncan and her maid. It’s not clear at this time that the first witch has simply taken Lady Duncan’s place, after kidnapping her and locking her in the dungeon. What I understood was that Lady Duncan was actually a witch, and even after the real Lady Duncan emerges later, I’m still not sure when the witch is meant to have taken over, or even if it matters.

There’s a lovely scene where Duncan sits at a table stacked high with eggs, and starts eating them, apparently raw. This got quite a few “Yeughs” from the younger section of the audience. This is where Macbett and Banco each confront Duncan, Banco complaining about Macbett being given the title he was promised, and Macbett saying he didn’t want the title, and it should be given to Banco instead. Duncan’s having none of this, and this confirmation of the witches’ prophecy, together with Duncan’s intransigence, pushes the two generals into rebellion, just as the witches wanted. Their plotting scene is a reprise of the earlier one, between Glamiss and Candor, except that Banco and Macbett are also getting changed after playing some racquet sport. The end result is the same – another agreement to topple Duncan, with Macbett becoming King and Banco, Prime Minister.

The assassination starts with Duncan coming on, stripped to the waist, carrying his throne. He sets it down, and there’s various lines about a healing ceremony he’s about to do. He’s anointed with black and white face paint, and then wrapped in a large clear plastic sheet, held together with a big “X” of black tape over his heart. It’s even placed slightly to the left side, as I saw it.

First off, a lot of actors wearing the witch-type masks appear at the back, and Duncan “heals” them, represented by them taking off their masks and jumping for joy. After this, Macbett, Banco and the Queen surround Duncan, and mimed stabbing him. Apparently these mimes were too much for Duncan, and he’s finally dead.

Now Macbett is King, and marries the woman whom he thinks to be Lady Duncan. Banco is in the throne room, fantasising about the future the witches promised him, and as he lies there, presumably asleep, Macbett walks in and decides to castrate him, to prevent his children taking away the crown. This isn’t particularly gory, although again the younger audience members reacted pretty strongly to some of it. Macbett appears to eat the off-cuts, only to blow ping-pong balls out at the audience. Sort of good fun.

Now their plan has come to fruition, the witches resume their masked form, and head back to their boss, carried on a flying suitcase. (Actually, it’s a sliding suitcase – you just have to use a bit of imagination.) Macbett holds a banquet, at which he shows he’s losing it big time, and eventually the real Lady Duncan appears, claiming the crown. When challenged about how she knows so much of what’s gone on, she replies that her fellow prisoners tapped out messages – it’s the prison grapevine.

When Macol turns up, he and Macbett have a lovely tug-o-war over the throne. It’s more like they’re both caressing it. Macol wins, and Macbett points out that no man born of woman can kill him. Sadly for Macbett, it turns out that Macol is Banco’s love-child, born of a gazelle, who was transformed into a woman for the sexual act, then re-transformed to carry the child. Damn. But at least Macbett can’t be killed unless there’s a forest present. In an instant, lots of huge flower arrangements are carried on stage, cellophane crackling, and put in a circle round Macbett. Curses, foiled again.

After Macol shoots Macbett, and thrusts him down the pit, he sits down to give his inaugural speech as King. A microphone is placed in front of him, and he gets underway. The speech is taken directly from Macbeth, using Malcolm’s lines when he’s checking out Macduff’s intentions, so it comes across as pretty unpleasant. However, the problem with tyrannies is that society can crumble eventually, with so many needed people killed off, and so it is here. As Macol continues to give his speech, the stage hands come on and start clearing the set, taking away the flower arrangements, his microphone, etc, until the stage is pretty clear. Then the Henry (vacuum cleaner) comes on, and Macol has to skip nimbly out of the way of the wire, as he uses a megaphone to try to get his message across. Finally, David Troughton comes on, dressed for the off, and taps his watch to show Macol his time is up. End of play.

All the above description sounds more interesting than I found the actual presentation to be. The play clearly spells out the corrupting effects of power, that absolute rulers aren’t to be trusted, and that even the most loyal of supporters can turn nasty, given the right circumstances. It also shows that extreme loyalty can lead to ridiculous acts of self-sacrifice. But we already knew this, so I didn’t feel I’d gained any greater understanding. The generalised sense of dictatorship allows for audience members to colour in the background themselves. Sadly, I tend to find that diminishes a portrayal, rather than enhancing it for me. I like ambiguity a lot, but not on a blank canvas. (I’m probably no good at ink blot tests, either.)

The apparent misogyny in the play (I read the program notes) didn’t really come across for me, mainly because of my confusion about the Lady Duncan/witch combo, and partly because none of the men are up to much either. The physicality of the performance was good; although I can always do with less gore, I do enjoy the liveliness and energy, especially when the actions are almost balletic. I’ll be interested to see if the Macbeth is similar in terms of the movement.

The post-show only had male cast members – I assume the ladies are working hard to get The Penelopiad on stage (opens soon).  There were some interesting questions, and we learned that the director, a Romanian, liked to work from the outside in, typical of Continental directors. Because of the way the performances have been developed, externally rather than internally, the actors find they’re still getting to know the piece, and still developing it. Both David Troughton (Macbett) and Sean Keans (Banco) admitted to a competitive streak – each tries to outdo the other in their repetitive speeches in the battle sequence. The suitcases are also in their Macbeth, and it was suggested that we’d seen these plays the wrong way round, as Macbett probably took the Macbeth ideas to a different level, whereas the Macbett might undercut our enjoyment of Macbeth. Ah well.

Another character who fitted in well with the overall effect was a rag and bone man, actually a woman. We heard the call a few times, and she wandered across the stage a bit, but her most telling moment was after the battle scenes, when all the victorious soldiers were saluting Duncan. There were lines about the dead soldiers, and we hear the rag and bone cry from behind us. She’s summoned onto the stage, and while the soldiers take off their outfits (they’re all wearing suits underneath), she bends over as the discarded clothes are heaped up on her back. A couple of the cast lead her off. I remember thinking how appropriate that was, as so many people in the play are now only rag and bone. It reminded Steve of Mother Courage, as did the lemonade seller. I was reminded earlier of Oh What A Lovely War, when the lights around the stage lit up, as if we were in a music hall.

I wanted to leave one of the best bits to the end. There was a butterfly woman, who came on with a butterfly on a long pole, and carrying a net, which she used to try and catch the butterfly. As the pole was too long, she kept missing, but it was lovely to watch as the butterfly flitted here and there, looked like it was about land on someone’s head, then moved on. This created a lovely sense of peace amidst all the turmoil, especially as the lights had been lowered as well, so there was a peaceful gloom everywhere. The only odd note was the headless body of the faithful servant. He had gone to cut off his own head, then returned to deposit it himself in the pit. What loyalty. The headless body then stood there, as everyone else got off the stage, and remained there until the butterfly catcher guided it off, using its hand to hold the net. This was a remarkably beautiful section. We see the butterfly catcher once more, later on, but I don’t remember anything specific about it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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