Macbeth – October 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Daniel Evans

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd October 2012

I liked this very much. It was a good straightforward production; the costumes were in period with a modern flavour, but with no guns or other anachronisms, the text was cut, but only to tell the story more clearly, and the delivery of lines was excellent, which was to be expected given this cast. It was also nice to see the ‘ee ba gum’ boys back together again on stage (Andrew Jarvis (Duncan) and John Dougall (Macduff), for those who didn’t see the ESC’s Wars of the Roses).

The set had a large circle of stones laid round the outside of the stage, with gaps left for the entrances. There were concentric rings of paving stones inside these, with gratings round the innermost circle and also just inside the bigger stone ring. I thought these would be for water, but they were mainly for light effects and some smoke. Mind you, there were some pools of water around the outside of the stone circle which came in handy later on. The innermost circle rose up to become the banquet table, and the very centre also sank down to become the cauldron for the witches’ brew. Apart from that, and some seats being brought on and off, the stage was nicely bare.

They started with the three witches, all female, all looking fairly hideous. They could disappear quite quickly with the three exits, and with such short scenes at the start there’s a need to be brisk. The bloody man was just that – plenty of Kensington gore on show – while Duncan was a saintly figure, with white hair and beard and grey robes, looking a bit Gandalf-like. He put his hand or hands on other people’s heads a lot in this production, and the nobility of his character was definitely being emphasised. I did find myself wondering if all was well in the kingdom though; they had just put down one rebellion and here was Macbeth about to have a go. There were clear reactions from the king and his men to the story the bloody man was telling, and to the further news of the Norwegian king’s defeat.

The witches came together on our side of the stage to speak to Macbeth and Banquo, and Macbeth was clearly startled to hear their third greeting. He stayed on the other side of the stage while Banquo chatted up the three witches, so I couldn’t see what he was doing at that point, and as the witches had their backs to us I also couldn’t see their faces so I don’t know if they treated Macbeth and Banquo differently. Only Ross came on afterwards with the message for Macbeth.

When they were welcomed by the court, I noticed how roundabout Macbeth is when responding to Duncan’s praise, whereas Banquo is very direct. When Duncan announced Malcolm would be his heir, Macbeth had already moved a little forward in anticipation, then hung back in disappointment and didn’t clap like the other Scottish lords. Lady Macbeth (Claudie Blakely) was truly surprised to read the royal prophecy, and after being told that the king would be arriving shortly, her reference to “under my battlements” was distinctly creepy, worthy of the horror genre at its best. They used the sound of a raven (I assume) to trigger this line.

Lady Macbeth greeted Duncan graciously, but I could see she was concerned about Macbeth’s absence. Macbeth’s conscience then had a good airing, and he was remarkably resolute against killing Duncan by the time his wife came along. She was full of contempt for his weakness, and he started to waver; when he asked how they would do it she knew she had him. I never like it when Macbeth grabs his wife’s crotch on the line “bring forth men children only”; I know they’re married but it always seems so crass, and tonight was no different.

Banquo had already indicated his relationship with Fleance when giving us the Springwatch speech earlier about birds nesting in the roof. He’d moved Fleance forwards to stand on a stone during it, so when the same character came on with him again we knew who he was. Banquo strapped his sword round his son and gave him a fatherly kiss on the head as well. Macbeth came up behind Fleance in the dark and pretended to strangle him, all in jest of course. Macbeth uses the word “we” during his conversation with Banquo, and I wonder if this is a slip on his part, using the royal “we” before he’s actually king. I didn’t notice any reaction tonight to this word. Instead of a servant, Macbeth sent Fleance with the message to his wife.

Even before Fleance left, Macbeth was looking glassy-eyed into the middle distance. It may be a problem with theatre in the round when Macbeth’s dagger is just in his mind, but it took me a while to realise what he was doing. Once he started moving around a bit it became clearer and the lines themselves came across well. The actual murder and the disjointed dialogue between Macbeth and his wife were good, with Macbeth on the other side of the stage and keeping his back to his wife when he returned with bloody hands, so it would be natural for her not to see that he still had the daggers. When she did realise, she threw her hands up as she indicated them, very angry with him for making the mistake.

The porter was very good. He did the three arrivals in hell very well, standing on the stones as he said the lines, and moving round to a new position each time. His actions became bolder with each one and he stood on two stones for the final one, the equivocator, stepping from one to the other to illustrate the points. Not Adrian Schiller perhaps, but still very good.

When Macbeth turned up to greet Macduff, his hands still looked a little red to me – they say fake blood washes off without leaving a stain, but……. I did think that the stabbing of the grooms would serve a dual purpose here, not only removing the innocent scapegoats but giving Macbeth a reason for having blood on his hands (the Elizabethan equivalent of GSR). Macduff was very subdued when he came out of Duncan’s bedroom, and when Macbeth returned from checking his report, his entrance echoed the earlier one when he’d just done the murder, as he was holding the bloody daggers in his hands. Lady Macbeth was on stage by this time, and she was very concerned about Macbeth’s actions in killing the grooms – I could see her face while she hugged Malcolm in sympathy for his loss – and she became even more concerned when Macbeth struggled to find a reasonable excuse when challenged about their killing. Her fainting was definitely a tactical move tonight.

There was a short scene to tell us about both the coronation and Malcolm and Donalbain’s flight, and then Macbeth and his wife, now king and queen, entered in splendour. We could see all was not well though. Macbeth looked confident enough, but Lady Macbeth was having the odd wobbly, especially when Macbeth made it clear that he wanted her to leave him alone as well. The two murderers were in hand restraints, and Macbeth twirled a key in his fingers while he talked with them, making it perfectly clear what was at stake. It did distract me a bit from the dialogue, though. I noticed one of the murderers tried to have his say but was always cut short by one of the others.

I don’t remember anything specific about the next scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the killing of Banquo was done briskly, with Fleance running off as usual. The banquet scene was set up fairly quickly, with a large round plate full of tasty food placed on the centre of the stage which then rose up to form the table. There were other plates added and seats placed round it while two fancier seats were stationed at the two main exits. These were the thrones, and while Lady Macbeth sat on her throne – hence “keeps her state” – Macbeth wandered round the table, playing the host to his guests. When the murderer entered on our side of the stage, Macbeth came over to hear his news, so my view of Banquo’s entrance was blocked, but Steve saw him slide onto a seat on the other side of the table. There were only three other lords anyway, so he wasn’t hard to spot when the murderer left and Macbeth moved out of the way. Macbeth’s reactions were good, and I was able to be aware of both his point of view and that of the others in the room who couldn’t see the ghost. Banquo did all the necessary head movements, and for his second entrance he came up through the middle of the table, right through the plate of food. Lady Macbeth looked worn out by the end of this scene, while Macbeth was still energised and determined to keep going. After the other lords had left, Macbeth started and looked round once more when he thought the ghost might have come back, but there was nothing there; it simply showed how jumpy he was.

They took the interval after this scene, and during it we noticed the stage crew putting little objects in gaps around the stones, like an Easter egg hunt. This proved to be more accurate than I realised. Meanwhile the second half started with Hecate telling off the three witches for messing things up and instructing them to put it right immediately. Hecate herself was one of many parts played by Christopher Logan,  and he was wearing a large headdress with a mask and suitably witchlike clothing. After she left, the witches began their spell, throwing lots of vaguely disgusting-looking things into the cauldron – I didn’t look too closely. When Macbeth confronted them they were amazingly helpful, clearly influenced by Hecate’s telling off.

The three apparitions stuck their heads up through the cauldron. For the final apparition, Banquo emerged onto the stage, while a younger man came up and sat on the side of the hole and the youngest lad simply put his head through. Banquo put a crown on the young man’s head, and he in turn took it off and put it on the young lad; there was no mention of the long line of kings. The news of Macduff’s flight came, and Macbeth was by now determined to take action – it doesn’t look good for Mrs Macduff and the bairns.

The Macduffs were having a good time collecting eggs on the sea shore, judging by the sound effects. The eggs were duly collected by her son, and the only other child present was a baby, placed in a wicker crib to one side of the stage. The warnings came and went, but she lingered too long and the murderer and Macbeth were the ones who came to do the killing. Actually, Macbeth just stood to one side while the murderer did the business, but the effect was the same. Macbeth took the baby out of its crib and held it all the while, then took it away with him at the end. I don’t know what this was meant to signify, but both Steve and I thought it may have been a way of getting a replacement baby for the one he and his wife had clearly lost (there may have been more than one, of course). It did make Ross out to be a liar when he reported later that all Macduff’s children were dead, but it’s a minor point. Lady Macduff was very strong in this scene, as was her son.

The scene in England was also well done, with Malcolm’s testing of Macduff being very clear. When Ross turned up with his bad news, there was a strange delay between Macduff’s question about his family and the answer, but tonight it simply came across as Ross giving the necessary background before coming to the point. He seems to be a wordy character anyway, similar to Polonius but not as funny. Macduff’s reactions were very moving, and I started the sniffles in this scene. No English doctor this time.

Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking was another good scene. The doctor and servant set it up nicely and we could see the candle before we saw the woman. She used the pool over to our left to wash her hands at first, then moved towards the middle. The servant was standing in front of her for most of the latter part of this scene, but from the dialogue I could tell it was a good performance. She gave a long, keening cry towards the end before leaving the stage to go back to bed.

The English and Scottish troops had their meetings and made their decision to cut branches to cover their advance. I found myself thinking there wouldn’t be much left of Birnam wood by the time they’d been through it. Meantime at Dunsinane Macbeth was getting more and more worked up. I don’t remember a Seyton as such; the murderer did any work that was necessary such as bringing on the armour, while the doctor brought the news about the wood. Just as he entered, the murderer left carrying the baby which Macbeth had finally relinquished; the doctor looked really worried as he saw the baby being taken out.

The foliage arrived with Malcolm’s forces, and was more substantial than in many a production. The fighting between Macduff and Macbeth was very strong, with sparks flying from the swords as they clashed. Macbeth was doing better than Macduff till he heard the bad news, then he struggled to match his opponent. For the final scene, there was a very realistic head on the pole which was placed in the centre of the stage, but fortunately Geoffrey Streatfeild came on to take his bow with the rest of them – phew.

I was aware of a number of things tonight. Firstly, I realised that unlike Richard III and Iago, Macbeth isn’t an evil man, he just finds himself doing evil things because of that fatal flaw, his ambition. As a result we have to watch someone much closer to a regular human being making bad choices and suffering the consequences all through the play. Even Lady Macbeth’s prayer to be filled with evil is a failure; she starts to suffer from her actions very quickly, and couldn’t even face killing Duncan herself because he looked like her father – what a waste of breath that was. It’s this connection to our own flawed humanity which makes this play interesting and also difficult. I’ve heard a number of people comment that we become complicit in, for example, Richard III’s villainy, but I don’t see it that way. The audience has no say in what he does, and yet it’s fascinating to see the way his mind works and how others are duped – the audience are much more like them than Richard. The humour helps as well, but Richard III wouldn’t be watchable if he didn’t lose in the end; that makes it cathartic instead of scary. Apart from the porter and one or two other bits, there’s precious little humour in Macbeth, and that also makes it harder to ‘enjoy’.

From the Oxford Complete Works I’ve learned that the version of Macbeth we’re left with has been interfered with by Thomas Middleton, although the extent of the tampering isn’t known. That made sense tonight, as I felt we were watching an unbalanced and misshapen play, which doesn’t quite work in the way Shakespeare’s other plays do. Even so, this was an excellent production of what we do have, and if some members of the audience hadn’t been so intent on coughing their way through the second half we would have enjoyed it even more.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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