Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Middleton's Macbeth.

I spent an interesting evening on Monday listening to Michael Boyd, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talk about his new production of Macbeth.  I haven't yet seen this on stage but what he had to say has certainly whetted my appetite for a play that I wouldn't say is normally one of my favourites.  I have only ever seen it brought off successfully once and then in the very small and intimate space of 'The Other Place'.  For me it's a play that doesn't work in the vast regions of a thousand seater theatre.

Aside: I should ask myself seriously at some point why that is.  After all it was written for The Globe which probably took an audience of three thousand. But that's a discussion for another day.  

To come back to Boyd's production.  What has me particularly intrigued is that apparently he is only playing the Shakespeare text and that is a very bold move indeed.

You do realise, don't you, that Macbeth as we know it (I am trying very hard to avoid the Star Trek joke here, especially with Patrick Stewart in the company this season) is only partially by Shakespeare.  What we have is almost certainly a version for the stage cut and embellished by Thomas Middleton.  If you decide to play only the Shakespearian bits then you lose not only the Porter, but also the Witches and Hecate too.  For some people I know that means the very bits that wake them up.

These passages are, however, parts of the Folio text that can be very hard to bring off.  Antony Sher and Greg Doran in their book Woza Shakespeare make the point that in a society that has no real concept of witches in a way which has an immediate, daily impact, it is almost impossible to invest the characters with the terror that they would have inspired in an audience that believed implicitly in the potency of such figures.  Too often, in the modern British theatre, they simply get the production off to a bad start by being laughed at.  The Porter normally fares better because by that stage in the play you're desperate for anything that offers a bit of light relief.  But, how do you give him the relevance that he had at the time?  His speech is a bit like Koko's 'little list' in The Mikado.  If you want it to have the effect it had when it was first produced, you have to update the references.  Most productions would change the script at this point, although I've never before come across a director bold enough to cut the scene completely.

I have to say that this has me really itching to see this production.  However, I do have a caveat.  Will it hold together now?  I suspect, and of course I have no way of knowing, that we have lost a good deal of what Shakespeare actually wrote when he first put quill to parchment over Macbeth.  Think how short it is compared to the other tragedies.  I've seen an almost uncut version played without an interval in little over two and a half hours.  Try doing that with Othello or Hamlet.  We only have the Folio version of Macbeth.  There are no Quartos published before the 'official' 1623 First Folio.  In other words, we don't have the original Shakespeare Macbeth, only the version 'prepared' by Middleton for a stage that expected a play to be around the two hour mark.  Now, Middleton knew his job.  He has given us a script that works.  He was, after all, a damn good playwright himself.  But if you start to adapt an adaptation are you going to be left with a text that has an inner coherence?

Well, time will tell.  I'm seeing the production within the next couple of weeks and you can be sure I will have something to say about it.  I hope it will be good.


  1. I had no idea that the Macbeth that we know is not entirely by Shakespeare! But then I dont know much about Shakespeare apart from the Charles and Mary Lamb versions that I read in high school
    Looking forward to your reaction on the play

  2. How very interesting! I didn't know that Macbeth was only partially by Shakespeare either. I read it at school, so I'm not surprised I didn't know. I have seen it performed twice - once in the Apollo Theatre in Oxford where the witches were in the cauldron, the scene projected on a large screen with lots of swirling mist - not at all scary but rather sensually acted. The second time was very different. It was also in Oxford, one of the University students out-door performances in one of the college gardens - very well done, I thought.

    I enjoyed both performances and I can't imagine what it will be like in the original version - looking forward to your review in a few weeks time.

  3. Vipula, if you can, do get to see Shakespeare (or Shakespeare and Middleton as the case may be) on the stage. It's where he belongs and reading it can never be the same experience.

    Margaret, I suspect this is going to be a production with half an eye on the fact that it is opening the new theatre and we all know what that can mean. Having said that, press night was Tuesday and the reviews are not bad.

  4. I've never seen the "Scottish Play" acted and if I knew it wasn't all Shakespeare I have completely blanked on it. I hope the production you are attending is good. Looking forward to hearing all about it!

  5. Count me in among the others who didn't know that about Macbeth. Interesting! I'm very curious to see what you will think of the production.

  6. I didn't know that about Macbeth either ... but it doesn't spoil the fact that it's one of my favourites. It's one for which several quotes often come to mind. I'll be interested in your report on this.

  7. Stefanie, one of the questions that Michael Boyd was asked was to do with the superstitions surrounding the play and if he shared them. He clearly didn't because he said he was easy with whatever someone wanted to call it. I suspect those members of the cast who are superstitious were not so sanguine.

    Dorothy, press night was Tuesday and so far the reviews have been pretty good. I hope they're right because the new theatre needs to get off to a good start.

    Sue, how nice to meet you. One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that he survives pretty much whatever any director cares to throw in his direction. Boyd has a more vigorous throwing arm than most. I'm prepared for anything.

  8. I actually had no idea that the witches and the porter were not Shakespeare original! Personally, as long as Lady MacBeth is still in there, I am fine. She is, by far, my favorite female character..ever. It'll be interesting to hear how the play ends up!

  9. Bookworm, there is a post coming up later this week. Lady Macbeth was OK. I've seen a couple better, but I've seen a lot worse and this is very early in the run. She will undoubtedly grow.

  10. Rather late to this discussion, it seems, but to your question about why Macbeth seems unsuitable for large venues when its original home was the's likely that Macbeth, like many of Shakespeare's tragedies from that period, was actually written for the indoor space at Blackfriars. Among other differences, Blackfriars was smaller (the figure 600 comes to mind for capacity, although I could be wrong) and was lit by candles -- in short, it was a more intimate, moodier space, more attuned to the tenor of the play.

    You may remember that almost all the scenes in Macbeth take place at night, in a fog, or in a setting where the sun is somehow obscured. Any time you read a Shakespeare play in which most of the scenes take place at night, there's a good chance it was written for Blackfriars. "Hamlet" is another example.

  11. HI Annie, I'm very interested in the Celtic knot work on the poster that you are using, do you have any idea where the original might be???? I am a textile artist and am looking for a subtle background for a piece of work on Shakespeare and this would certainly fit the bill.
    Ann Beech