Macbeth at the Albery - The Inside Story

Last Update: 13 November 2002

"Three singing sisters and a broken piano": An interview with the Composer and Musical Director

Simon Slater is the composer for Macbeth at the Albery. He has written music for Edward Hall's Julius Caesar and Henry V at the RSC  

At what point did the music fit into the production process?
In this case very early on. I've worked with the director, Ed Hall, on two previous productions and he is quite unique in his approach to music in Shakespeare. Rather than fitting music to existing lyrics we work on creating an entire score which augments and supports the production. For Macbeth I've composed three main themes (which recur throughout) orchestrated via a midi keyboard fitted into the broken piano on set. The piano is played by one of the actors as are the violin and trombone (Ed and I like to use actor-musicians). The first theme - sung by the Weird Sisters at the beginning - mixes into the third theme which is in five parts and sung by the whole company at Macbeth's coronation. The second theme uses a "military" drum sample and Latin Mass sung by the actors for the entrance of King Duncan. The Weird Sisters also sing a lullaby to seduce Macbeth prior to the prophesies. The words are from the Book of Revelations and sung in Gaelic to associate them with Paganism and "old evil" (see sheet music).

What influenced your approach to the score?
The designer, Michael Pavelka, was working with the image of a broken piano in a bombed out palace and so I worked on finding an appropriate "broken piano" sound and added other samples*, outside the range of voices. There was a trap I wanted to avoid which was to make the music too big and "gothic" so I went for a cold, spare sound with solo melody lines and minimal samples. The church music for Macbeth's coronation was influenced by the Lithuanian composer, Arvo Pärt, whose music is very still and very beautiful, it doesn't move or modulate according to classical tradition but goes for the "pleasure of the now". I like to go for open harmonies, for what moves me rather than follow the rules. It's also to do with composing for the theatre rather than the concert hall, where you are augmenting a play - the music is not aiming to be better or bigger but to support what is already there.

How did you create the opening theme for the Weird Sisters?
It was Ed's idea to have the Weird Sisters singing at the start of the play, he often likes to start a show with something very theatrical. I wanted the lyrics to be pre-Christian and so I'm using an anonymous Anglo Saxon poem called "The Wanderer". It actually sounds like old English - the first words are "wintres worma" - and is about the tempest, about death, and man's destruction. The melody is classical and structured but with some unexpected notes and an "elemental" sound from the keyboard accompaniment. The Sisters swap the melody between them and also the harmonies which are sometimes in three parts, sometimes two. The music never starts on the first beat creating a slightly edgy, uncomfortable atmosphere to introduce the play and the sisters. As the refrain moves around the play it is always sung by the three actresses creating resonances with the Weird Sisters and the world they represent.

*samples are selections of sound or music recorded and reproduced using digital recording equipment

Directors and Designers


Part Two: Actors and Acting


Back to Macbeth main page

Back to Main Theatre Page

Return to The Compleat Sean Bean Main Page