Macbeth – August 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Eve Best

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Wednesday 28th August 2013

Not bad for a first time director, though again the limited view reduced our enjoyment. We sat in a Gentlemen’s box on the right side of the stage, and from our position there were no entrances in sight at all. The stage had been extended forward with a semi-circle which had steps down to left and right. There were similar steps on each side of the stage near the front, while the pillars had sizeable steps set into their bases which allowed for climbing. At the back of the stage were some walls which looked like they were made of wooden planks; they jutted out into the stage and had jagged tops as well, which reminded us of a crown as well as a wooden palisade. At the base of the walls were small piles of mud or soil (detachable, as we saw later) and the walls themselves had muddy stains tapering off about half way up. The planks had been painted white, and were aged and weathered. The trunks of the pillars were wrapped in covers stained to echo this effect.

A quick recce to a more central position showed me the doorways: double doors in the centre, shut at the start, and open entrances on each side at an angle. With the walls jutting out so far, this was a poor design for the space, and certainly lessened my sense of engagement with the performance. There was a candle or two on the ledges of the pillars which someone lit shortly before the performance began; I missed this as I was checking on the doors, but Steve filled me in. I didn’t see anyone take them off, but they weren’t there later, and I have no idea why they bothered in the first place.

The cast walked on and stood around the stage. Most were carrying drums, but I could see a hand bell and a gourd amongst the players. The first music was presumably bagpipes, judging by the whiny noise, though I assume they would have been period bagpipes. The sound seemed to be coming from the battlements, and then the drumming began and carried on for a while. After a short pause for “When shall we three meet again?”, the drumming resumed and the non-witches left the stage, taking all the drums with them. The witches were all up on the pillars at this point, and said their lines with just the bagpipe music in the background. And the sound of a helicopter. At least the helicopter sounds were more fitting, given there’s a war on.

Duncan and his attendants came on from the back, and the king spotted the bloody man coming through the crowd below. Malcolm was going to give the injured soldier a hand to get up the steps, but then he realised he might get a speck of dirt on his immaculate fancy clothes, and shied away, which got the first laugh of the afternoon. It wasn’t the last, and this was undoubtedly the most comic Macbeth I’ve seen, barring the porter.

The three witches took off some of their clothes once Duncan and his court had left, and met Macbeth and Banquo in their undies. Their initial conversation, about what they’d done that day, what they had planned, etc., was so-so, and I would have preferred less of it. They were over by the right pillar when Macbeth and Banquo entered, and as they stayed over on the left side of the stage, it took them a few moments to spot the witches. Bizarrely, I found Banquo’s Scottish accent too strong for me! It changed the words enough that I couldn’t make out most of his dialogue, although I had no problems with the other actors, even those who also used a Scottish accent. I was also a bit distracted by the musicians moving around in the battlements at this point – they were just at my eye level and hard to ignore.

The witches picked up their outer clothes and left the stage by the front steps while Macbeth asked them to stay and explain their greetings to him. As they walked past him, they paused on “to be king” and looked at him, then resumed their passage into the audience and out. Banquo and Macbeth started laughing once they were alone, finding the whole experience funny. Ross arrived with another chap – Angus in the text, but he’s not in the cast list, so presumably he was a combo role. Macbeth’s first soliloquy – “This supernatural soliciting…” – went very well, and Joseph Millson kept the pace going without losing any clarity of thought. He stood at the front of the stage, while Banquo conferred with the other two men near the back, putting in the interjections as needed.

I felt Gawn Grainger was playing a more frail Duncan than most, hinting that he needed to elect an heir pretty soon anyway. Macbeth had to be pushed forward to receive Duncan’s thanks, and Duncan actually knelt in front of him, which horrified the court, who all knelt themselves, including Macbeth. This sort of gratitude was only making things worse, of course, as was the claim that “More is thy due than more than all can pay”. Macbeth’s response was formal, while Banquo’s was again more natural, and he also got a hug from Duncan. With the court spread out across the stage, Malcolm was as surprised as anyone to be named as Duncan’s heir, almost as if he didn’t want the job, and there was a little laugh at his reaction. Macbeth wasn’t in my view, so I don’t know how he felt about the news, apart from his later comments.

Lady Macbeth came on reading the letter in her hands as Macbeth was finishing his little speech. This was her first perusal of the letter, so she was thrilled to hear about the third greeting and very keen to make sure it came true. She held her hands to her head on “golden round”, and knelt on the front edge of the regular stage to invoke the evil spirits. After Macbeth came running on stage from the side, they embraced and it was very clear they were a team, even if she would have to work hard to ensure her husband had the right motivation for the assassination.

Duncan arrived through the audience, and after Banquo’s comments about “the temple-haunting martlet”, there was a sudden burst of birdsong, which made us laugh. On “By your leave, hostess”, Duncan took Lady Macbeth by the hand and, as they walked to the back of the stage, went so far as to kiss her before starting a dance. The court danced off stage, and immediately Macbeth was back on having a fit of the jitters. He stayed that way too, until Lady Macbeth started having a go. It was very clear that her idea of ‘manliness’ was to do whatever it took to get the crown, killing and all, and while Macbeth responded to her insistence, he was still shaky even after the “sticking point” line. He was willing to listen though, and apart from one brief interruption as a servant walked across the back of the stage, they concluded their plans over by the far pillar.

Banquo and Fleance were on next, and after Banquo gave Fleance his sword, he took out a dagger and probably had a little fight with his son. From the laughter, I assume Fleance won. Banquo imitated a drunken Duncan when he gave Macbeth the diamond, which got a laugh, and then Fleance decided to have a piece of the action and did the same drunken lurching walk himself. We laughed, but Banquo wasn’t too pleased and sent his son packing.

The same servant was walking by again, and Macbeth sent her with the message to his wife about ringing the bell. The dagger was completely in his mind, and he followed it with his eyes, even ducking to get out of its way when it moved through the air towards Duncan’s chamber. Sadly, although the dagger was imaginary, the helicopter was real, and some of the second part of this speech was lost as a result. No risk of “Thou sure and firm-set earth” hearing “my steps which way they walk” with that racket going on!

One of the witches was in the upper gallery to do the owl shriek, and when Macbeth returned to his wife he held the daggers behind him so she wasn’t able to see them at first. He kept them out of sight until he left to wash his hands, and Lady Macbeth did well not to get any blood on her off-white nightdress when she took them to “gild the faces of the grooms withal”.

There was plenty of tension in this scene, which was soon lost once the porter got going. He came up through the trapdoor, appropriate for a “devil-porter”. Played by Bette Bourne, the porter was certainly drunk and his own nose demonstrated the meaning of “face-painting” for anyone who wasn’t sure, but I was surprised to find any Macbeth porter in this theatre not making use of the audience when locating his various targets. It was an OK performance, but not one to remember apart from the way he pointed to an aeroplane flying overhead; it was the use of his middle finger that made us all laugh. I thought he repeated some lines, but I couldn’t be sure.

Macbeth helped the porter back down the stairs and shut the trapdoor. While Macduff went to wake the king, Macbeth and Lennox were waiting on the stage. Macbeth wasn’t interested in conversation, so Lennox’s attempt at small-talk – “The night has been unruly” – made us all laugh. With no response from Macbeth, Lennox kept on going, building up an ever-more elaborate picture of apparently trivial events until Macbeth, desperate for it to stop, interrupted with “’Twas a rough night”, which brought an even bigger laugh.

Duncan must have been in the penthouse suite, as Macduff appeared on the balcony to inform the others that the king was dead. When Ross came on in response to the alarm he appeared to be eating something, and Malcolm’s “O” in response to the news of his father’s death raised a laugh, though I didn’t see exactly why. Lady Macbeth was pouring on the grief during the general discussion, sobbing quite a lot so that her collapse seemed quite natural this time. Her first tears were in response to the news of the grooms’ supposed guilt. Macbeth hugged her briefly during his speech in defence of stabbing the grooms, but he was elsewhere when she staggered, and someone else had to catch her.

After the short scene with the old man, Ross and Macduff, the central doors opened up (I assume) and two lines of courtiers stood on either side as the new king and queen processed onto the stage to what sounded like a Kyrie eleison. Macbeth was holding a large bowl, a quaich in fact, which he kissed as he and his wife stood forward of the courtiers. Banquo came round in front of them to deliver his lines, and that done, he became “our chief guest”. They had their conversation while Macbeth drank from the quaich and handed it round so the other nobles could take a drink; Banquo was the last to have a sip, and he seemed reluctant to do it even then. Fleance would have happily had a drink – he even reached out to take the bowl just as Macbeth was whisking it away – and then he and Banquo left the stage.

Macbeth sent everyone else away, and ordered a servant to bring in the murderers. His next soliloquy was fine, and his long coat caught his foot at least once, causing him to kick it away in a temper, which fitted with the speech he was giving. I noticed he was careful to keep the train out of his way for the rest of the speech; his temper may not have been just acting on his part.

The servant remained on stage during the conversation with the two potential murderers, standing towards the rear of the space and holding a tray with the cups and jug of wine. The two men looked blankly at each other when Macbeth asked “have you considered of my speeches?”, which got a laugh, and Macbeth’s subsequent words became a reiteration of the ‘facts’ for the benefit of these two slow-witted chaps. (Apparently Banquo had a stockpile of WMD which he could deploy in 45 minutes…) Macbeth served them with drinks himself, taking the cups first and then filling them from the jug, then taking the cups away briskly once he’d got them to agree to do what he asked. He threw a purse high up over his head so that it landed in the middle of the stage, and one of the murderers picked it up on the way out. The fact that the servant remained throughout suggested he would turn out to be Seyton, Macbeth’s closest confidante in the later stages of the play. Lady Macbeth sent him to fetch her husband at the start of the next scene.

The dialogue between Macbeth and his wife was very well done. It was clear that husband and wife were now completely out of sync with each other. She had expected that one murder would be enough to ensure their happy reign; he was well aware there was more to it than that, although his obsession with Banquo’s promised future was driving him to greater lengths than were absolutely necessary. He held his wife in a loving embrace at one point, but it turned into a stranglehold which she struggled to get out of. I don’t remember if Macbeth also knelt down to invoke the negative powers, but he may have done.

Seyton was the third murderer, and the most prolific. After Fleance’s departure and Banquo’s death, the trapdoor was used to dispose of the bodies. The bodies? Well, no point leaving the two slow-witted chaps alive, so Seyton despatched both of them and threw them down the hole as well (don’t know if he nicked the purse as well, couldn’t see that much detail). Before he’d finished doing all this, with the trap still open and a body or two still to be disposed of, Macbeth entered for the banquet scene, and his massive leap over the hole and bodies raised a huge laugh.

Macbeth was clearly in good spirits, already feeling the weight lifting off him and looking forward to a happy feast with his court. He shook hands with a number of people in the audience as red (paper) petals fell from above. Two tables were brought on and laid together lengthways in the middle of the stage, with chairs behind and at each end. I couldn’t see a lot of the guests’ behaviour to begin with, as the pillar was in the way, but I had a good view of Seyton when he came on stage over on our side to give Macbeth the sort-of-good news. This hiatus allowed Banquo to slip on stage over the other side, so that he was sitting at the left end of the table when Macbeth turned back to the party, with Lady Macbeth sitting opposite him.

Macbeth was naturally upset at seeing his dead ‘friend’, and went over to the front of the stage to remonstrate with his ghost. Lady Macbeth went to join him, but it didn’t help that Banquo’s ghost also came and stood beside her. The ghost did go back to the table eventually, and we laughed at Macbeth’s complaint that you couldn’t rely on people actually staying dead anymore – what a whinger!

With the ghost off stage at last, Macbeth recovered, and we laughed at his return to good humour; he certainly didn’t “displace the mirth” of the Globe audience. As his glass was filled for the second toast to the absent Banquo, he glanced around to make sure the ghost wasn’t about to appear again, another humorous moment. Banquo outflanked him, however, by sneaking back on our side of the stage. This time he stepped up onto the table as did Macbeth, and they had their confrontation there, face to gory face. The guests had quit the table by this time; for all Lady Macbeth’s reassurances, things had taken a nasty turn and they weren’t keen to get involved. They didn’t leave all that quickly either, mind you, and she had to chivvy them off stage. For the final conversation between Macbeth and his wife, they sat at either end of the table, and Lady Macbeth’s weariness was evident. She took off her coronet as if it no longer held any charm for her, and left the stage after her husband, deeply unhappy. I didn’t hear the last words of Macbeth’s final line “in deed”, but he may have said it too quietly for me to catch.

This was where they took the interval, and as Hecate was consigned to the dustbin for this production, the restart was Act 3 Scene 6, the ‘previously, in Macbeth’ discourse by Lennox and another lord. It began with someone, neither Steve nor I were absolutely sure who it was, possibly Lennox, possibly Malcolm, coming on with an apple and singing The Flowers Of The Forest, a lovely Scottish folk song. That got our attention – can’t just dim the lights in the Globe – and when the first chap sat down by the front steps, the other lord (possibly Lennox, but we didn’t have a clue – they all looked so alike) came on and we were reminded of the story so far, as well as the latest events regarding Macduff. Lennox, if it was he, was peering about him cautiously in case they were being overheard, which suggested the sense of menace nicely.

The three witches came on to do their cookery lesson. Still in their undies, they had white faces and arms, more obvious with Moyo Akandé, and looked like they’d been doing a lot of baking. They gave us the full incantation, minus Hecate, clustered around the curved area at the front of the stage which had tendrils of steam curling up through the floorboards to represent the cauldron. They knelt for most of this bit, and sang the “double, double” chorus, moving their arms in unison as well, and the style of their singing was like a modern pop song.

When Macbeth arrived, he threw a purse amongst them before he asked for their help. One of the witches checked the purse before holding out her hand for the quaich, which Macbeth was also carrying. He was reluctant to let it go, but she persisted and eventually he gave in. Then they took him into the centre of their cauldron area, made him kneel down and mimed tying his hands together. They forced him to drink something from the quaich, after which he ‘saw’ the visions which were provided by the three women themselves. For the first vision, one of the witches took Macbeth’s crown and put it on her own head, pronouncing the warning about Macduff. Then another drink, and two of the witches spoke the next prophecy that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. Another drink, and all three witches told him of the Birnam Wood eventuality.

There was drumming in the background during this section which stopped after the third ‘apparition’. Macbeth was obviously getting the hang of the process, because he took another drink himself to see the fourth visitation, not that he liked what he saw. The witches made him kneel down again, replaced the crown on his head, and holding his arms apart they turned him this way and that as the images came before him. They left him at the end, kneeling in the cauldron area with his hands ‘tied’. But when he went to someone (Lennox? Seyton?) to get his hands untied, he finally realised it had all been in his mind.

Young Macduff climbed up on the right pillar and sat there ready for the next scene while Macbeth was having a rant about surprising Macduff’s castle, etc. That was followed by Lady Macduff having a rant as well – it’s a popular Scottish pastime – and with Colin Ryan playing all the young lads in this production, young Macduff’s contribution was very good. The attack of the killers was so-so, with young Macduff eventually being thrown to the ground and stabbed by Seyton, who carried him off. Lady Macduff wasn’t harmed today, at least not on stage, but she was escorted off it by a big nasty-looking thug wielding a dagger.

Down in England, Malcolm wasn’t looking so fancy, with his shirt hanging out and no hat to wear. I had a strong sense of his need to test Macduff, that there had been others who had tried to trap him before. When he said “It is myself I mean”, he waved at Macduff, which was funny, and there was more laughter when he finally came out with the word “voluptuousness”, though as he was the other side of a pillar from me I have no idea what he was doing. As he worked his way through his dis-qualifications for being king, he pointed to someone in the audience on “desire his jewels”, and nodded at him to confirm it which raised another laugh. He was so effective in listing his iniquities that Macduff threw him to the ground on “no, not to live”. One side effect of this scene was to make me aware that Macbeth must have had some followers or there would have been no one to carry out such tricks on Malcolm. There was more laughter on “unknown to woman”, and they skipped the doctor in this version. Ross’ reticence to reply fully to Macduff did not go unnoticed, so Macduff was already prepared for the news when it came.

Lady Macbeth was in her nightdress again and carried a candle when she came on for the sleepwalking scene. She knelt by the front of the stage for most of the scene, pretty much where she did her first invocation. Samantha Spiro’s delivery was fine, but there was nothing significant to report. The doctor stayed on stage at the end, sitting by the right pillar, so he was handy for the next scene when Macbeth asked for an update on his wife’s situation. Before that, young Colin Ryan had played the “cream-faced loon” very well, coming across the yard very hesitantly to deliver unwelcome news. Seyton brought on a chest when Macbeth insisted on donning his armour, and they didn’t get very far. Macbeth put on his belt, which had two axes hanging from it, but they just couldn’t get one of the leather arm guards to behave itself today, so that had to be done off stage.

The English troops in support of Malcolm presumably put in an appearance sometime, but the next thing I remember is Macbeth coming back on, kitted out with both arm guards and hearing the news of his wife’s death. The drumming which had been going on for some time stopped completely on the word “dead”. After “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which was OK, the young man returned with the news of Birnam Wood’s arrival, and that was followed pretty swiftly by the opposition walking through the yard and throwing some bare branches onto the stage. They clambered up after them and put them in prepared holders round the pillars. The skimpy branches looked ridiculous, but with the end in sight I wasn’t too bothered.

The fight between Young Siward and Macbeth was a nice piece of choreography. Young Siward lost his sword early on, but Macbeth threw it back to him, apparently to give the lad a fighting chance. He repeated this once more, but on the third attack he disarmed the young man again, got him in a stranglehold and then broke his neck. This emphasised Macbeth’s skill as a fighter, his confidence that no one could kill him, but also his willingness to give his opponent a fighting chance.

Things were different with Macduff. Both used axes, Macbeth having two to Macduff’s one. The fight was much more believable than the recent NTL Macbeth we saw at the cinema. Macbeth was dismayed by the revelation about Macduff’s entry to the world and dropped his axes, but when he realised the only other option was to be taken prisoner, he picked them up again and they resumed hostilities. Weapons were dropped one by one until they were down to fists. Macbeth appeared to have the upper hand, but by some manoeuvre I couldn’t see properly, Macduff got behind him and snapped his neck (I think).

Malcolm turned up immediately to be presented with Macbeth’s “head” as well as the rest of him. Seyton was brought on behind him as a prisoner, and the three witches came on during Malcolm’s final speech. His supporters made to kill Seyton but Malcolm stopped them, and once the dialogue was finished they went into the slowest, strangest dance I’ve ever seen them do. One of the witches started playing on a fiddle, a slow, haunting tune; it seemed familiar but I couldn’t put a name to it. Those on stage just stood or lay where they were, while the rest of the cast brought on some candles which were put round the pillars. Finally Macbeth stood up to join in the very slow arm movements. The ‘dance’ got a little quicker, but it was still more of a dirge than a jig all the way through.

Just as I was giving up hope that things would get any livelier, they did, with a faster tune as well. The dancing picked up, and as they took their bows it looked like the actors were doing some entertaining moves. The audience facing the stage were very appreciative – we weren’t unhappy ourselves – which confirmed our feeling that the sides of the theatre hadn’t been fully considered when the production was staged. It’s always going to be a problem for us as we’re no longer able to sit elsewhere in the Globe, given the uncomfortable nature of the seats, so we’ll just have to hope that other productions will be more accommodating. This one was to a good standard, with Malcolm and the Donalbain/Fleance/Young Macduff/”cream-faced loon” actor being much stronger than usual, and a good pairing of the Macbeths. I found Macduff disappointing, with not much to note in the performance, and I’ve already commented on the indecipherability of Banquo’s accent. The aerial competition was stiff today as well, which doesn’t help, and we were glad to be in the shade – at least three people were helped out from the ground floor that we could see, plus there were noises from next door as if someone else required assistance. Still worth the trip though, and we’ll happily see this director’s work again.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “Macbeth – August 2013

  1. Peter Serres says:

    With the benefit of insider stuff, I can add that Macbeth gets rid of the Porter with a wearily tolerant “Back in your box” suggestive of dismissing the family pet when it has become too much of a nuisance. Similarly, the glad-handing at the banquet is customarily accompanied by “Would you like to kiss my ring? (pause) “Down on your knees” evidently scandalised that anyone would even think of doing it standing up.

    Donalbain (& other bits) is easily the most nimble-footed member of the cast when they get to the sprightly finale. He also has what appears to me to be exactly the right way of holding his hands.

    I’m sorry that the Globe seating arrangements deny you a more central view of the play.

  2. Thanks for the extra info, Peter.

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