Macbeth - Reviews - Michelle


Last Update: 17 November 2002

Much has already been said about the production, direction, sets and costumes, lighting and special effects, and of course the performances of all the actors, so I'll just add my thoughts on Sean's interpretation. If I were asked to choose a single word to describe Sean Bean as an actor (and this performance in particular) it would be "courage". Indeed, for such a private, emotional and sincere man to tackle Macbeth, arguably Shakespeare's most difficult and exacting role, not from the relative privacy and safe distance of a camera lens, but live, on a very public stage, night after night, took enormous courage. Motion pictures, after all, are a much safer and more controlled context in which to ply his conjuror's trade. Bean has built a highly successful film and TV career. He is a huge star in Britain, adored by his legions of devoted fans. He enjoys a very comfortable income, though he has never been willing to leave Britain for the U.S. in pursuit of even greater fame and fortune. He is a risk-taker, but not in the thrill-seeking sense of the word. Indeed he is terrified of flying and, even though he routinely performs his own stunts, he has said that he doesn't like to drive fast or take unnecessary physical risks "because they're dangerous". And yet there is a hot-headed, impulsive and terrifically emotional side to Bean as well.

Daring yet cautious. Personally shy and intensely private, yet literally willing to bare body and soul in the service of his craft. Brave and squeamish at the same time. Deliberate and impulsive. Highly disciplined. Passionate, emotional. Modest yet self-assured. Add to that contradictory mix a hugely active imagination and what you get is precisely what Sean brings to the role of Macbeth, transfiguring himself through it so that it is never Sean himself that we see on stage but a distillation, reconfigured through the alchemy of his art into a singularly vulnerable, exposed and desperately lucid human being. His Macbeth is angel and beast, slave and tyrant, hero and fiend, as soft as he can be cruel, by turns guileless and perfidious, innocent and wicked. One gets the sense that Bean is no stranger to his own contradictions and it is because in crafting his character he uses the very stuff of which he himself is made that his performance is so real and believable.

Shakespeare's plays make for arduous reading, and none perhaps more elliptically so than Macbeth, but I'm glad I took care to carefully reread the play several times before I went to see it at the Albery. What Shakespeare very specifically and repeatedly tells us about Macbeth before we get a chance to see him for ourselves, and then reinforces in various ways throughout the first half of the play (e.g. when Lady Macbeth tells us that he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness"), is especially important in this production because it is the starting point from which Sean takes the character, the foundation upon which he builds his characterization:

What then is our first impression of Macbeth when at last we see him? He has just come from the battlefield and Sean plays him as excited, euphoric, pumped full of adrenalin, in the state of sensual and emotional arousal we are told soldiers experience in the heat of battle. At first he seems amused, even entertained by the three hags, whom he rather jovially entreats to "Speak, I charge you". This Macbeth is a brave, uncomplicated warrior, a man of action who relishes doing his duty and enjoys the friendship of Banquo, his companion at arms. Even when the witches hail him as Thane of Cawdor and then as "Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter", his reaction is one of bemusement, not foreboding. Only after Banquo beseeches the witches to predict his own future ("lesser than Macbeth, and greater", "not so happy, yet much happier", "Thou shalt get kings though thou be none") does Macbeth take umbrage, dismissing their predictions about himself: "The Thane of Cawdor lives, a prosperous gentleman; and to be king stands not within the prospect of belief, no more than to be Cawdor" (and here it is interesting to note that Macbeth has not yet heard of Cawdor's treason) and angrily demanding to know "whence (they) owe this strange intelligence". After the witches disappear without answering him, whereas Banquo is disturbed by their predictions ("have we eaten of the insane root that makes reason prisoner?"), Sean's Macbeth at first seems oblivious, resuming his former playfulness, teasing Banquo ("Your children shall be kings") and in response to Banquo's more serious "You shall be king", jests as if the whole thing were a huge joke ("And Thane of Cawdor too / Went it not so?")

Again when Ross and Angus arrive, bringing news that the king has just made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth's first reaction is impatient and incredulous ("The Thane of Cawdor lives", he says peremptorily, "why do you dress me in borrowed robes?"). Only when Angus assures him that Cawdor has been stripped of his title ("treasons capital, confessed and proved, have overthrown him"), do we see the first glimmerings of a hitherto unspoken ambition ("Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind"), but he instinctively recoils from it and turns to Banquo ("Do you not hope your children shall be kings, / When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me / Promised no less to them?"), almost as if to reassure himself that if Banquo's children are to be kings, then Macbeth himself can't possibly aspire to the throne. In the ensuing aside (as Banquo speaks to Ross and Angus in the background) Maceth at first refuses to contemplate that the weird sisters' "unnatural soliciting" might have an evil end. After all, he argues, it "cannot be ill" since it has "given me earnest of success / commencing in a truth". But by now he is deeply unsettled, repelled and horrified at the "murderous thought" that is suddenly invading his mind. This Macbeth is a man who does not know himself well, played by an actor who, through introspection, has come to know himself extremely well (in contrast to the Sean of years ago who, in his early interviews, routinely professed to acting out of sheer instinct, and never asking himself why he did things, much as his Macbeth does in the first half of the play.) This is the moment where Macbeth, confronting for the first time his "dark and deep desires", loses his innocence and Sean brings Macbeth's sudden confusion, anguish and self-abhorrence vividly to life ("Why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings. / My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not."). In the end, it is too much, and Macbeth's conclusion (and fervent hope) is that "If chance will have me king, / Why, chance may crown me / Without my stir." Thus Macbeth's first line of defense is denial (just as he asks the others to forgive his momentary distraction: "Give me your favour. My dull brain was wrought with things forgotten", i.e. things which I have now willfully forgotten.) Yet he again reaches out to Banquo ("Think upon what hath / chanced, and at more time, / The interim having weighed it, let us speak / Our free hearts each to the other.") This is revealing firstly because it reinforces Macbeth's conclusion that, notwithstanding the witches' first prediction, he has come by the title of Thane of Cawdor by a fluke of circumstance, and secondly because it confirms Macbeth's sentiments toward Banquo: at this stage Macbeth neither fears nor distrusts Banquo (whose friendship he will later betray and whose murder he will coldly arrange, arguing that "every minute of his being thrusts / Against my near'st of life") but confides in Banquo and repeatedly turns to him for reassurance.

Many more times before the "deed is done" do we see evidence of this Macbeth's good nature. His pledges of loyalty and gratitude to Duncan are heartfelt, until Duncan announces that he is making his son Malcolm his successor, prompting Macbeth for the first time to conclude "That is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap / For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires: / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see." From then on, Macbeth, infected as much by the "murderous thought" as by his own "vaulting ambition", wages a losing battle for his own soul (which, having lost it, he acknowledges as his "eternal jewel"). He has to be manipulated, seduced and bullied into murder by his wife, and at the penultimate moment even announces that "We will proceed no further in this business". But his scruples are deflated by his wife's enraged prodding and once he has made his bed ("I an settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat") he lies in it, even as his own courage and integrity impel him to confront and accept the consequences of his actions, and the price of his lucidity is a hellfire of remorse, guilt, terror, nightmares and hallucinations. In fact lucidity defines him. Whereas Lady Macbeth fantasizes about committing murder and uses every womanly wile and trick in the book to put her husband up to it, after the deed is done she retreats into insanity and self-murder rather than face up to what she has done. By contrast, Sean's Macbeth has a desperate lucidity about his situation ("They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly / But bearlike I must fight the course": One can argue that here "they" refers as much to occult forces, as personified by the weird sisters, as it does to Malcolm, MacDuff, Siward et al, but it is Macbeth's own integrity that prevents him from fleeing, that impels him to go down fighting.) This Macbeth goes willingly to his doom, with his head high and his eyes wide open. Though he is presented to us from the beginning as a man possessed, bewitched, under an evil spell, in the end, this Macbeth dies like a man, taking full responsibility for his actions. In some ways he reminds me of Albert Camus' Caligula, whose defiant last words even as he dies are "I am still alive!" To me, this Macbeth ultimately redeems himself, and in finally resolving his contradictions, reconnects with his own basically moral nature. All in all a memorable, inspired performance.


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