Monday, 3 January 2011

Thoughts on Macbeth

Even though today is officially a bank holiday in the UK, I really felt that the time had come to get back into my normal workaday routine. What with the snow and Christmas it has been far too long since I last did any real study or preparation for my upcoming teaching commitments. So, bearing in mind the fact that I still have three sessions to take on Titus Andronicus, I spent the morning finishing Greg Doran and Antony Sher's account of the production they staged of that play, with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, in 1995, Woza Shakespeare.

Once they'd got the play up and running there was the opportunity to go and watch other productions being staged or rehearsed in the Johannesburg district including Umabatha, the Zulu Macbeth. Sher writes:

I'm on the edge of my seat from the word go, when a tiny figure dashes from the back of the vast, open stage, kneeling at the front, muttering and shivering, and then sneezes. She is one of the witches and the sneeze is a ritual in Zulu witchcraft...Seeing the play done in this context, in a society with a real relationship to witchcraft - like Shakespeare's society - makes me realise why ninety-nine per cent of modern British Macbeth's fail.

And, reading what Sher has to say about this production made me realise why, when the publicity handouts came last week for next season's repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, my heart fell at the announcement of yet another Macbeth. In all my years of theatre going I have only once seen a production that completely stopped me in my tracks and I have seen several that have been so awful that the only remedy was to laugh.

The worst of these was perhaps twenty or twenty-five years ago and starred an actor so famous both on stage and in Hollywood that were I to name him I could guarantee that you would all know to whom I was referring. Given just how terrible his performance was I'm not going to do that. It would have been bad enough had it just been the lead who was so appalling, but it wasn't. If the entire cast had been replaced by a pack of Daleks they could not possibly have been more wooden and disjointed, in speech and movement both. And the props! Suffice it to say that when Macduff held up Macbeth head in the final scene the entire audience collapsed in gales of laughter. It was embarrassing.

The only Macbeth I've seen that really worked was the RSC's production with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench which was originally staged in the company's small theatre, The Other Place, when it was still housed in an old hut with a corrugated iron roof. (You tried to avoid performances when it was raining and those of us who knew the town well never went on a Tuesday when the local church had bell-ringing practice!). This production has been immortalised on DVD, so you may have seen it, but you had to experience it actually in the space for which it was devised to really appreciate the intensity of the original concept. The audience formed the outer ring of concentric circles, the actors were the middle ring and performing space was at the heart of the action. Played without an interval, the evil invoked grew in that inner arena and was trapped and intensified by the people around it. It was one of the most mesmerising theatrical experiences I've ever known.

Between those two extremes I must have seen at least a dozen other productions none of which have been particularly satisfactory and so I have to say that I'm not exactly leaping up and down with excitement at the thought of yet another foray into this most difficult of plays. I notice that the publicity handout doesn't say who is going to play Macbeth. I wonder, is this because of the company's policy of emphasising the ensemble nature of their work? Or is it, perhaps, that they haven't yet succeeded in persuading any actor that he wants to take the risk?


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