Macbeth – July 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 3rd July 2007

What a difference from the recent version we saw at Stratford. This was a much more coherent production, with filmic aspects adding another layer to the effect.

The setting was Russia in the 1950s, although to Steve it looked more like the 1920s. The stage layout was simple and bleak – the back walls, both on the slant, were institutional whitewashed brick, the floor plain, and to the left front stood a large sink with taps plumbed in from above. Central in the back wall was a lift, with metal concertina doors. It all seemed very functional, semi-industrial, and stark. Old style light shades hung from the ceiling, and different ones were lit at different times, to fit in with some very dramatic and effective lighting. To the right of the lift doors was a radiator, and to the right of that a fridge, with a small TV on top of it. A shelf on the left wall held a record player.

The opening scene here shows Duncan arriving at a field hospital, and talking with a wounded soldier who has been wheeled in on a hospital trolley, and is being attended to by a couple of nurses. There were three nurses in all on this ward – you have been warned. I found all the details in this scene a bit distracting. There was so much to look at that it was hard to concentrate on the soldier’s speech, so I didn’t get such a clear sense of what had gone on as I usually do. It was also very noisy at the start, as the battle was still going on, so I had to fiddle a bit with the headset. Still, it got a lot quieter after Duncan left, especially as the three “ward” sisters bumped off the wounded man – a chilling start.

We then get their “when shall we three…” stuff, followed by Macbeth and Banquo’s arrival. The witches had constructed a figure using one of those drip stands, a bag of blood (for the face), and an overcoat. As they had their backs to the front (sorry, that sounds so crazy), we could only see them in side view, so I’ve no idea how it looked to Macbeth and Banquo, but they did seem to be using the figure like a puppet. Macbeth & Banquo’s reactions were interesting. They were preparing to leave, when the witches start up their hailstorm, and Macbeth’s attention is caught by his additional titles. He’s obviously got ambition, and although he queries the plausibility of their words, he’s not that disinterested. Banquo is much more cheerful in this production. He’s almost bantering with the witches, and also sounds the note of caution about believing what they say. I’ll just mention here that the nurses/witches were dressed in simple grey uniforms, with white bib aprons, and white caps. At other times, they changed the caps to become servants, so they turned up in all sorts of places.

In order to melt into thin air, the witches took to the elevator, but instead of simply going up, there’s a blackout and some wibbly noises, and then when the lights come up they’ve disappeared! Amazing. Macbeth and Banquo are certainly astonished, the more so when Ross and Angus, the messengers from the King, arrive and start calling Macbeth Cawdor. I liked the way Angus, the military man, shows impatience with the way Ross, the suited civil servant(?) or diplomat(?), takes ages to get to the point. Macbeth is enthralled by the prospect of the witches’ final prophecy coming true, and with such ambition on show it was hard to believe that this Macbeth would be so reluctant to “catch the nearest way”. But not impossible.

Duncan and his entourage now emerge, and they’re full of praise for Macbeth’s abilities. When Macbeth arrives, there’s lots of congratulations, etc. Malcolm comes over to shake Macbeth’s hand, so he’s standing right beside him when Duncan makes his announcement about his heir, and for a moment, it looks like he’s going to name Macbeth. He even takes a small step forwards to accept, only to be caught out by Duncan’s actual choice. Of course, he covers it up well, congratulating Malcolm along with the rest (so he can act after all). Off they all go to Glamis castle.

Now the stage changes again, and this setting will apply through several scenes. There’s a metal trolley table to our left, and two trestle tables are brought on, middle and right. This is Glamis’ castle kitchen, and it’s a nice touch to give us such a domestic, even cosy setting, for the coming acts of darkness.

We had a very good Lady Macbeth last time, and this production was no slouch in that area either. Kate Fleetwood gave us a more passionate woman, driven by ambition and desire. Her invocation to the powers of darkness was very focused and intense, and showed none of the nervy character that Derbhle Crotty gave to her performance. At this point, Lady Macbeth is totally in control, but so focused that she’s effectively blinkered. I’ve always felt that she has this hunger for power, but thinks that killing Duncan will be enough to do it – nobody else needs to die. Macbeth, being better versed in killing, knows there are consequences, and it’s this that holds him back. He wants the same result, but he also wants to “be safely thus”. (It’s often those who don’t have to get involved in the process who are so enthusiastic about the benefits of murder.) Anyway, once Macbeth arrives, Lady Macbeth is already so wound up she’d have spent time persuading him even if he’d been equally as primed to go.

The kitchen staff turn up, and start preparing the evening feast, with Lady Macbeth helping out. Duncan and his crew actually arrive through the kitchen, which is pretty realistic for Scottish families. Seems a bit unlikely for a castle, mind you, but it does emphasise how intimate all these people are, despite their grand titles. Macbeth and his family are relatives of Duncan’s, after all. Lady Macbeth is remarkably coy in greeting Duncan, but all goes well. With the banquet in progress, Macbeth slips out to the kitchen to get some more wine. As he opens a bottle and decants it, he gives us his thoughts on “If it were done..”. Again the emphasis on him being the host, and the sense of family comes across strongly. Lady Macbeth joins him, and has to push him hard again to refocus his intentions. I noticed very much this time how Macbeth considers the witches words as promises – he’s easily led when it’s where he wants to go, although Lady Macbeth does have her hands full on the method side. Her excuse for popping out to the kitchen was getting the gateau for dessert – it looked lovely, and borders on distracting, but the actors are on top of it (the scene, that is), and I hardly noticed the cake.

Fleance, however, has obviously noticed the cake, as he sneaks into the kitchen for a late night snack and raids a piece from the fridge. He only gets a mouthful, though. Banquo arrives and chats with him, and then Macbeth turns up. I found it a bit surprising that Banquo, as the text has it, should draw his sword and challenge him, before he knows who Macbeth is. He is in a castle after all, in safe territory, and in its kitchen, too. But this production places a lot of emphasis on the idea of surveillance, and nobody being able to fully relax and trust each other, especially once the murder has happened. Macbeth takes the uneaten cake and returns it to the fridge – a surprising lack of hospitality for a Scotsman. Banquo takes his leave, and Macbeth is left alone to chat to a dagger. Will it be invisible this time? We can clearly see three kitchen knives left on the tables, so the opportunities are there, but Macbeth ignores them, and focuses on empty air. Once he’s got himself wound up again, and the bell strikes, he’s off to murder Duncan, who appears to be sleeping just off the kitchen (do all these Scots nobles like midnight snacks?).

Lady Macbeth comes on, and now her nervousness begins to show. She’s been all steel up to now, but the heat of action is starting to melt her resolve. She’s got the grooms drunk, left the daggers for Macbeth, but she’s also seen the sleeping Duncan, and been reminded of her father. Mind you, she’s still wife enough to nag at her husband when he comes back from doing the deed. I don’t know, give a woman exactly what she says she wants, and she still complains! That’s marriage for you. She returns with plenty of blood on her hands and throat, and manages to get her husband off to their bedchamber, just as the first knockings occur.

The porter. Well, we’ve seen all sorts here, some very good, others snoozable, but this was unique in terms of audience participation. He comes down in the lift, opens both the doors, and then gives us some of the lines we know so well. He’s carrying a torch, and uses it to shine on particular people in the audience, and then he picks on one guy, a teacher, whose students have obviously set him up to be the victim. Mr Wright is “encouraged” by the porter to take his place, and this porter, like Lady Macbeth, doesn’t take no for an answer. So we’re treated to the sight of Mr Wright, standing on the stage, holding the torch and something else the porter had (I forget what), looking thoroughly pissed off, and then deciding to give us “To be or not to be”. The porter, probably worried he was going to be upstaged, decided he’d had enough fun with the audience by this time, and let him go back to his seat. He got a good round of applause for being such a good sport.

Fortunately, the knocking had let up during this bit, but now it started again, and at long last the porter lets in family Macduff. This was a surprise in some ways, although I’d noticed Suzanne Burden was playing Lady Macduff, so I was half expecting she’d be given more to do than the usual one scene. The kids are there as well, one son and two daughters, all dressed for school. Obviously not a two-car family. Macbeth comes back, in his dressing-gown, and Macduff heads off to waken Duncan. The lines Lennox speaks in this scene are taken by Lady Macduff and her son.

I don’t remember exactly when all the other nobles arrive, but I think some do before Macduff returns. In any case, they’re all roused once he does, and Macbeth heads off to check on what he says, even though he knows it’s all too true. Macbeth’s attempt to excuse his killing of the grooms does come across as too much, but he does make a valid point, had he been innocent of Duncan’s murder. Lady Macbeth collapses as usual, and Malcolm and Donalbain head for safer ground.

Banquo is troubled by all of this. I think at one point during his soliloquy he rips a listening device from the underside of one of the tables, again pointing up the surveillance theme, although as he’d already said most of what he had to say, it seemed a bit late to be doing that. Perhaps he should have checked for bugs first, before he spoke.

After inviting Banquo to that night’s feast, Macbeth sends everyone away, including Lady Macbeth, who’s already starting to look concerned at the distance he’s keeping between them. Now Macbeth lets the scorpions out of his mind and plays with them for a bit. It seems to give him an appetite, because as the potential murderers are brought on, he gets a platter out of the fridge and makes himself a ham sandwich. I don’t know if there was some deeper meaning in the food aspects of this production, but in this case I simply found the sandwich making a distraction. It stopped the energy of the scene building up, and kept it too domestic. It may have been useful to show Macbeth giving a part of the sandwich to each of the murderers once they’ve “signed up”, but I really didn’t find this staging helpful. Perhaps the director is suggesting that Macbeth’s a compulsive snacker?

Later, when he’s talking with Lady Macbeth, she’s definitely feeling the pressure, due to his coldness towards her. They’re getting dressed for the feast, and while she would like to get physical, he’s not interested. Towards the end of the scene, where Macbeth calls on the powers of darkness, she’s disturbed by it, and especially because he so clearly echoes her original invocation after she’s read his letter.

Now the scene shifts, and all the tables are moved, while a collection of chairs is placed in two rows diagonally across the stage. Various characters take their seats, along with Banquo and Fleance, and suddenly we’re on a train, a strange form of riding, perhaps, but maybe Banquo’s a dedicated train spotter? The third murderer is Lennox, and instead of stabbing, Banquo is shot after a scuffle, but Fleance gets away. One of the murderers shoots one of his fellows, and then he heads off to tell Macbeth what’s happened. The rest of the people in the carriage don’t want to get involved. In that sense, it was a good staging, bringing out the wider sense of fear in society as a whole.

To cover the removal of the chairs, I think this is where the cast come on and sing a Russian-sounding song; something like a hymn. The chairs are away, and the tables are brought back on for the feast. No flying wine and bloody fruit here, thank goodness. The table runs from back to front of the stage, and the witches are among the servants tonight. All is going well, with Macbeth serving up the wine, and then stepping to one side to hear from the murderer. They stood just to our right, so we got a good view of their dialogue. Then Macbeth returns to the table, as the witches are serving up the soup. As he stands to one side, two of the witches are standing in front of his place, so he can’t see where he is to sit. They move away, and he sits down, and all begin to eat. Then the lift starts to descend, a film clip of red liquid dispersing is projected onto the back walls, spreading away from the lift entrance, and finally Banquo emerges, all gory, and walks straight up on to the table and along to the end to confront Macbeth, who recoils in horror. The witches are on either side of the table, arms outstretched, joining in the tableau. And there the first half ends!

This was a very good example of how this production, on several occasions, created a large gap between lines that are often run together. Even ignoring the interval, we have a long gap between “Here, my good lord.” And “What is’t that moves your highness?”. The initial staging of this scene is reprised after the interval, only this time, the conversation Macbeth has with the murderer is done silently, allowing us to focus on the action at the table. This follows the same pattern as before, except that Banquo doesn’t appear, so that when Macbeth starts violently back from the table, we know what he’s seeing, but we can also appreciate the point of view of the others at the feast. I found this very effective, giving us two different images to help us flesh out the scene.

After Macbeth’s first recovery, there’s a lovely bit of dancing, which reminded me very much of how Stalin apparently tormented his acolytes. The guests all pair up and start dancing – the record player comes into its own here – but as Banquo’s missing, someone has to dance with the mop! Everyone does their best to avoid it, and when the music stops, they all dash around to get another partner before the next dance. When Lady Macbeth ends up with the mop, she bangs it on the floor in time to the music, and it all gets a bit rowdy. Then the “ghost” makes another “appearance”, at least to Macbeth, and the party breaks up.

Hecate is not part of this production, so the next scene involves a chat between Lennox and another lord. This was staged strangely. I couldn’t see a lot of it, as Lennox was standing with his back to us, blocking off the view of Ross, the other lord in this case. Ross was sitting on a chair, and seemed to be being interrogated by Lennox. There was certainly a sense of intimidation in the air, although the lines themselves don’t help that interpretation. I can’t really supply any more information here, as I just couldn’t see enough to know what was going on.

Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches takes place in some chamber, possibly in his castle(?), where they bring on three corpses. Definitely not nurses you’d want to meet if you were ill. There’s a cut-off hand, and they sing a modern style song while clambering provocatively over the dead bodies. Whatever turns you on. The corpses are done up in white body bags, centrally zipped. Macbeth arrives via the lift, descending, of course. The information comes from the corpses, the one on the right being the first to speak. The one in the middle gets partly unzipped for his contribution, and for the final pronouncement, images are projected onto the back walls which I presume are meant to represent Banquo’s line of royal descendants. I could see the picture of Banquo himself, but I really couldn’t make out what the other images were, so I can’t help much there either.

At Macduff castle, we see the mother and her three children. I realised after a bit that the program being shown on the TV on the fridge was a kiddie’s program, which Macduff junior was watching, while his sisters did their homework. Is this why boys aren’t doing so well in school? His lines were shared out between him and the older sister, and then they all get killed. I couldn’t help feeling she was a silly cow, this woman. How many times do folk have to tell her to flee before she takes the hint? But no, she stays, complaining bitterly about how her husband has left her in such danger, not even packing a bag, as she does in some productions. What an idiot. Ross was brought back on stage by the murderers at the end of this scene, and I thought he was also going to be killed, but as he pops up in the next scene, alive and well, I have absolutely no idea what that was about.

The meeting between Malcolm and Macduff was an interesting staging. The chairs were on again, in rows, so that the English gentry could enjoy a music recital. Macduff crept on with his suitcase during the song, and sat at the back, waiting to speak to Malcolm. Once it was over, everyone else left, and they could talk in private. Their discussion was well performed, and brought out all the concerns of both men – Macduff to get a better king for Scotland, and Malcolm to check out whether Macduff is one of Macbeth’s agents or not. When Ross arrives, I felt unhappy with his initial hiding of Macduff’s great loss. I’ve no idea why Shakespeare does it this way, although I usually find it very moving once Macduff has been told what’s happened, but here I felt it could have been addressed a bit more clearly. However, the resulting reaction was even better than I could have expected. Despite the clearly emotional impact, Michael Feast as Macduff keeps it physically simple – his fingers just touch the back of the chair he’s next to. And then there’s silence, a long silence which allowed the emotional connection to deepen and spread. I thought at the time that it was great they had the courage to hold it so long. It didn’t overstay its welcome either, as Malcolm very gently returned us to speech. Beautifully done.

Now we’re back in Macbeth’s castle, and Lady Macbeth is about to take her nocturnal ramble. The servant talking with the doctor is one of the witches, although this time it may just be doubling, it’s not clear. One special effect here – as Lady Macbeth goes to wash her hands in the big sink, having poured bleach all over them, a torrent of red liquid gushes out of the taps, to her horror. Naturally the doctor and servant are oblivious to this. I haven’t always commented on the way through these notes, but Kate Fleetwood judged Lady Macbeth’s decent into madness very well, I thought, and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for her character’s suffering, I could understand why she’d done it to herself. Like Macbeth, she regarded the witches utterances as destiny, and felt totally justified in committing any sort of atrocity to get her way. Then she finds the consequences not to her liking, and the emotional energy she put into achieving their greatness has nowhere to go but crazy. Sad, but true.

Macbeth is now over-confident, as he’s been seduced by the corpses’ pronouncements into believing himself invulnerable. Still, he’s not a happy bunny, and as he thrashes around verbally, he calls for “Satan”, as I heard it. It’s “Seyton” in the text, but it’s fine to pronounce it Satan, and in this case, very appropriate. It’s the porter who answers to this name here, again appropriate.

We’re rapidly coming to the end now, and the scenes fly thick and fast. Finally, Macduff confronts Macbeth, and despite finding out that Macduff was not born of a woman, Macbeth decides to fight on. In fact, he briefly considers ending it all by shooting himself, but holsters his gun to fight Macduff with a knife. It’s always a difficulty when setting these plays in more modern times, to deal with the sword fighting when the characters would more naturally use a gun, or somesuch. It’s sorted here by having the gun empty, so Macbeth has to resort to more basic methods. He roars his lines, concluding with “and damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold””. I paid attention, and for definite, the “enough” part of that line was missing. For once, Macduff doesn’t get the better of Macbeth, but as Macbeth is about to deliver the killer blow, the three witches appear at the sides, and Macbeth pauses. Now he says “enough”, with resignation, and allows Macduff to kill him. A very interesting staging.

Other than mentioning that Siward is genuinely unmoved by his son’s death, once he knows he died honourably, there’s nothing more to report on the play. But there was more to come, as we’d come tonight to take advantage of the post-show (naturally), so we hung on to hear what more we could from the cast. The audience contained a lot of school kids (Mr Wright’s class), many of whom stayed on for the post-show. After some initial reluctance to ask questions themselves, they started to get more into it, and some interesting points emerged. But the main event was when Patrick Stewart very firmly told off a lot of those present for their behaviour during the performance. He pointed out that theatre is a combination of three things – a text or narrative, the actors, and the audience. All three have to work together to get the best out of the evening. As another actress had already mentioned, some of the younger folk had been chatting and making noises, and this had been distracting to the cast. (Apparently they talk about us backstage – good job my ears are fireproof!) He was quite firm without being unpleasant, and he certainly got across the message that those who had made more noise than they needed to had brought the performance down a bit from what it could have been. His words were warmly appreciated by those of us who have often felt such a speech would be useful.

Although I was aware of some noise from our right during the evening, I wasn’t too distracted myself, but I must allow for that in my final assessment of the performance. Looking back on it now, and writing down the staging and my reactions, I’m aware that it comes across better than I experienced it at the time. I did like a number of bits, such as the feast and its reprise, the long silence with Macduff and Malcolm, but overall I didn’t feel as engaged emotionally as I would like. Of course, that’s partly because I don’t relate to calling on the powers of evil, but even so, I found it more cerebral than emotionally charged.

The use of film was OK, but didn’t add much for me, other than the seeping blood bit just before the interval. The music was also OK, but without any significance that I could see. I liked the general setting, but the attempt to twist some parts of the play to emphasise that context left me cold. I thought the ensemble worked very well together, and I enjoyed many of the performances, but I found it lacking in depth, perhaps because the director didn’t trust the text enough to get the story across? All in all, though, a good production, with some classy moments.

Almost forgot, during the banquet scene, Macbeth took a cigarette off one of the guests who was about to light up, and crumbled it over his head. We didn’t know if this was a reference to the newly introduced smoking ban or not, but it was a good reminder of Macbeth’s abuse of power.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me