I don't recall studying Macbeth in high school. I suppose I must have, because I seem to be familiar with the play, and it was on the curriculum. However I had the dubious honour of attending a school in the early 1970's where we were all streamed according to our academic achievement and intelligence. My "brainy" class was experimented upon by zealous teachers anxious to overthrow the tyranny of traditional learning - and so the curriculum went out the window. I dimly recall writing a play in which murderous students set upon a hapless intern teacher, chanting "Die! Die! Die!" in best Shakespearian fashion. My best friend constructed a model of the Globe Theatre and put miniature fired clay actors on its stage, dressed in costumes run up on the sewing machines in the Home Economics Department.
I also don't recall studying Macbeth at university, where I took a directed reading class in Shakespeare as part of my degree in Literature. My all-in-one Complete Works is curiously unannotated.
Yet I know these characters, and I know this story.
Which is more than can be said of many of today's students, who have been raised on a steady diet of computer games, in-your-face music videos, movies which rely on CGI for their punch, and tv series which are cancelled after two episodes if they fail to generate the anticipated audiences demanded by the show's sponsors.
What does all of that have to do with Macbeth? Plenty.
If you want to reach out to the audiences of today - if you want to continue to make live theatre relevant to ongoing generations - you have to give them a reason to want to go. Theatre is not the only game in town, and there are too many other diversions out there which are less trouble to get to, and which require less of an emotional investment on the part of the interested parties.
I think Edward Hall's current production is absolutely brilliant on that count alone. From the initial big bang in the semi-darkened theatre (which resulted in frightened shrieks from the first-night audience at the Albery, followed by an enthusiastic round of applause), to the excellently staged sword-fight at the end (and you know it's excellent because there is serious whacking contact between Sean Bean's sword and Mark Bazeley's shield, the kind that makes you sit up and think, God, I hope they have their timing down to the absolute second on this), Macbeth is a production designed to grab the audience and not let go.
The very first scenes are played out behind a black gauze curtain, lending a dream-like quality to the play - this is what went on before, the audience is being told - these are the actions which have led up to where we are now. The curtain is pulled aside - significantly, by a visible rope, not by an unseen mechanism - and the real story begins. We are presented with witches - not hideous hags but three very foxy looking redheads in slinky gowns - who literally and figuratively seduce Macbeth as the play progresses. We are given a Lady Macbeth who is also extremely attractive - and who presumably enjoys a fantastic bed-life with her husband.
We are, in fact, given a bed - several times - a huge affair which is rolled out onto centre stage and which provides not only a seat for Lady M as she deliberates over a letter from her husband, but which is also the primary exercise ground for Lady M and Macbeth as they discuss their plans - as well as a vehicle for the witches themselves, as they surprise everyone by popping up to inhabit Macbeth's imagination while he sits on the floor, debating his future.
We are given a good-looking Macbeth who exudes sex appeal. I quite liked the Richmond production, where a bare-chested Macbeth is seduced by the witches at the foot of the bed. His trousers were slung low on his hips, revealing the waistband of his briefs underneath. The only thing was, it was fairly distracting, and I kept wondering if Sean was going to lose his trousers altogether before he got through the scene. By the time the play had transferred to the Albery, the trousers had been hitched up properly, and the distraction was effectively removed. Alas.
This Macbeth wears leather very effectively, along with a black mesh see-through top that appears to be nearly in tatters (a nice allusion to his growing state of mind); leather battle trousers with plaid cuffs (you can only see the design if you sit close to the stage in the first few rows of the theatre); and a crown with a Scottish thistle emblazened on it (again, something only to be caught in close-up photographs).
We are given a real fire that shoots up through a grating in the floor of the stage, subtle sound effects that you only hear consciously if you really, really listen, so cleverly are they incorporated into the action; and flesh-and-blood ghosts who startle the audience by their appearance - merely by turning around to face Macbeth in the banquet scene, for instance - and who appear high up on the set to judge Macbeth as the play nears its inevitable end.
We are given scene changes that occur seamlessly with the action onstage, so that there is no letup in the continuity - the actors carry props on and off in darkness, wheel beds around, convey tables, light candles and torches.
We are given a stark, enclosed set that is multifunctional and multipurpose - dead centre is a set of doors which acts as everything from a gateway to an unlikely elevator, conveying the Porter up from below to deliver the only light-hearted scene in the play (though Sean manages to generate a round of genuine humour each time he confirms "Twas a rough night." following Lennox's description of the strange goings on the evening before.
We are given a Lady Macbeth who desires power and glory for her husband - and who will stop at nothing to achieve it. The scene where she descends into madness is absolutely riveting.
The entire performance is carried along at breakneck speed - but it has to be done that way - if it were slowed down, if the audience was given a chance to stop and think, if there were moments of "down time" - today's generation of theatergoer, raised on nonstop action, would begin to fidget, would lose the adrenalin rush. This is a play that relies on momentum. And it's carried all the way through to the end - where it culminated (on the nights I saw it) in at least four curtain calls and wildly enthusiastic cheering for not only Sean - but Samantha Bond, too, and the entire ensemble.
A word about the acting: Sean Bean is an excellent actor. It seems irrelevant to me whether he delivers Macbeth's lines in a Yorkshire accent or a cut-glass London accent. He's more than able to opt for the latter, but has elected to keep the former. I've seen the range of characters that Sean has created over the last 20 years, and Macbeth is by far the most intense - and the best - in his repertoire. Those who are familiar only with the big screen Boromir or the small screen Sharpe are in for a treat. Sean's Macbeth is energetic, focussed - obsessed - vulnerable - and all too human. First presented as a heroic and popular soldier, he is variously manipulated by ambition, temptation, lust, love, success, conscience and finally his own sense of self-worth as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is not invulnerable, and that everything he and his wife have caused to happen has, in the end, unravelled. The final irony, the prophesy by the witches that he can not be killed by a man borne of woman, is the final straw. As Macduff reveals that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd", Macbeth is left betrayed and desperate, and the ensuing fight is not only a fight to the death for Macbeth, but a fight for the last solitary thread of hope in his life.
Sean's Macbeth ranges from sexually-charged, to angry, to dictatorial, to desperate, to despondent. He is also subtle - which is a difficult thing to accomplish onstage, without the benefit of a close-up camera. There are small winces, as Macbeth realizes he has ordered the death of someone he actually admires and likes. There is an impatient foot-tapping gesture as he sits in his throne - something we all do, something that could easily have been left out, but wasn't. On press night, there was a provoking hand signal during the final fight scene - as if to say, "Come on, come and fight me properly."
Samantha Bond's Lady M is the perfect foil for Sean's Macbeth. An extremely strong actress is required for this part - she is no wilting lily - someone who can match Macbeth's sexual tension and hold her own as the driving force behind his murderous acts. She variously entices, belittles, bullies, and ensnares him - and in the end, having succumbed to her own conscience, after their love life has disintegrated and she has lost Macbeth to the ruins of his imagination, she goes quite mad - quite wonderfully.
Mark Bazeley is a tremendous Macduff, the "other side" of Macbeth - tall, good-looking, the embodiment of all that is good, all that Macbeth could have been, had he not taken the path of darkness to achieve his ambitions. His realization that "wife, children, servants all" have all been murdered, is heartbreaking to watch.
Julian Glover is an excellent Duncan, fatherly, kind, very likable - and an even more excellent Porter - a true clown, in the Shakespearian sense of the word - a man who delivers the cutting truth, but disguises it as humour. "Remember the Porter" is his watchword - and I definitely will.
The three witches are memorable too - they dance through the early scenes, hand in hand, playing with Macbeth's imagination - but their most memorable scene is at the foot of the bed, when arms and bodies are intertwined, like writhing snakes, trapping all four of them so that they are one undulating unit, each dependent on - and unable to escape - the other.
I wish I could write more about the entire company. I've only seen the play twice, however, and I believe a more indepth review of the singular acting would require at least another viewing. Suffice to say they are ALL very, very good.
I want to say something here about the critics. There are those who have dismissed this production as being not artistic enough, not serious enough, not traditional enough, not intense enough, not genius enough. Nowhere in any of these critical reviews has the word "entertainment" been mentioned.
While those academic critics are busy lionizing Shakespeare and holding him up as a revered god, not to be tinkered with, it's too easy to forget that Shakespeare himself was a man of the people, writing and acting for the masses, his plays competing with the bear-baiting, bull and cock-fighting arenas, bowling alleys, brothels and taverns of Elizabethan Southwark.
It's too easy to forget that the 38 plays which he wrote were frequently not held in high esteem by Shakespeare's own educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be nothing more than vulgar entertainment.
Is Edward Hall's Macbeth high art?
Why does it matter?
Is it entertaining?
And that IS what matters, in the end.
Winona Kent is a reluctant academic with
a BA (Honours) in English Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.
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