Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Macbeth ~ Royal Shakespeare Company

The new RSC season has started and all is once again well with my world.  I am never completely happy unless I have a parcel of theatre tickets sitting in my bureau waiting to be used and if they are tickets for the theatres in Stratford well then all the better.  I started off this season's theatregoing last Saturday with a visit to the new Main House to see Macbeth.

Those of you who read my piece last week about Michael Boyd's current production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company will recall that I was concerned that this performance might not hold together as a coherent whole, given that Boyd had said he was only playing the Shakespearian elements of the text and cutting out the passages by Thomas Middleton.  Well, I needn't have worried, the production is one of the best I've seen of this play and certainly hangs together as well as Macbeth ever can.  This is in part because, despite what he said, Boyd has still left in certain lines from the Middleton scenes.

Thus, we still have the prophecies that set the whole play in motion.  After all, if no one tells Macbeth that he is destined to be King then we might as well all head for the bar before curtain up and stay there.  But, there are no witches.  Instead Boyd gives us three ghostly children, a direct result of his production some years ago of a dramatised version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Talking about this Boyd said that he had found those children more scary than any representation of the witches that he had ever seen and more appropriate as an image of terror for a modern audience.  And I would have to say that I agree with him, especially as those children then become the MacDuff babes who are later brutally slaughtered.  Believe me, no one was tempted to laugh.

And, we still have some of the Porter's lines, although they are assigned to Seyton and there is no indication of the Porter in the programme.  At first glance it might appear that these lines are kept just as an opportunity to remind the audience that this play was initially performed only months after the failed gunpowder plot and indeed we all came away having had the lesson that you should never return to a firework once lit hammered forcefully home.  However, there is a far more important reason why Boyd has to keep some of the Porter's speech and that is because he needs retain the reference to the equivocator.

There is a really interesting article in the programme by James Shapiro, one of our leading Shakespearian scholars, about the nature of equivocation and the way in which the use of the word changed as a result of the activities of Father Henry Garnet, the foremost Jesuit in England and a man who instructed Catholics how to mislead the authorities not by lying, but by evading the truth.  Garnet was hanged, disembowelled and cut into pieces on May 2nd 1606, the year in which this play was written and so the concept of equivocation would have been very much in the minds of that first audience.  As Shapiro says:

Before this time the word 'equivocation' had only been used by English writers to describe what happened when a word could be understood in more than one way, when its meaning was ambiguous or uncertain.  There was no sense of equivocating as deliberately misleading others in  sinister way or...of using a mixed proposition to express one part of a man's mind, and retain another.

That was not the case after Garnet's activities became well known.

Equivocation is at the heart of this production.  Macbeth tells only part of what has occurred in his letter to Lady Macbeth and they both then equivocate with their guests.  Macduff's wife tells her young son partial truths and Malcolm equivocates with the Thane of Fife himself.  Who is telling the truth? Who dares to tell the truth?  The other aspect of Jacobean England that is forceable brought home, especially through the set, is the fact that the country is still riven by the religious 'civil wars' of the Tudor period.  For the past sixty years it has been unsafe for one faction or another to make known their religious allegiance and who knew who could be trusted and who could not.  Neighbour could turn on neighbour, brother on brother.  The need for equivocation was something Shakespeare's audience would have understood only too well.

As far as it is possible, I thought Jonathan Slinger and Aislin McGuckin handled the main roles well.  I'm not certain that there is ever enough in the early part of the play to account for Macbeth's turn from loyal follower to traitorous renegade.  Those first scenes are appallingly underwritten and my own belief is that we don't have the full Shakespeare text.  I suspect that when the Middleton additions were tacked on it was to bring coherence to a version that had been cut down to fit the 'two hour traffic of our stage'.  Remember that they had to be off stage by five (by-laws were by-laws even in Shakespeare's day) and all the great tragedies would have had to be cut substantially to fit in with this requirement.  Luckily, we have managed to retain the complete Hamlet, Othello and (with certain caveats) Lear, but Macbeth, I think, is another matter.  Slinger came through the early scenes as well as any actor I've seen other than Ian McKellen and McGurkin's descent into madness was well defined.  I also liked the very bluff MacDuff of Aidan Kelly; I would have trusted him with my life any day of the week.

So, all in all, a success, which is more than you can say for most productions of Macbeth.  It's had very good press reviews as well, so if you live within reach of Stratford and feel you might want to see it, I would book quickly.  I think this may be one of those shows where tickets are hard to come by.


  1. This sounds like a production well worth seeing. I'll have to keep my fingers crossed that it makes its way down to their London season in the winter. I've only ever seen a local amateur dramatics production of Macbeth and that just felt a bit awkward the whole way though, so it would be great to see a company really bring it alive.

  2. I'm sure it will make its way to London, Rose. They will need to milk as much money out of every production as possible in the current financial climate, but I will try and find out what the plans are if at all possible.

  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. It's tempting me to see if we can get tickets.

  4. Glad to hear the production turned out so well! A clever change from the witches to the ghost children, and you're right, definitely more scary. And what interesting hisotrical information about equivocation. I had no idea.

  5. Margaret, the company may well bring it up to Newcastle later in the year. If I hear anything about that I'll let you know. It would be well worth the journey.

    Stefanie, we don't take witchcraft seriously enough today to be convinced by it, I think, but the pictures of mutilated children that we're subjected to in the press come back to haunt you in this production and it works superbly.

  6. Your Shakespeare posts are always so fascinating - love that detail about equivocation. Glad the production lived up to your hopes, and agree with the other commenters that the change to children rather than witches makes a lot of sense for a modern audience.

  7. It's small details like that which bring a play to life for me, Emily. I love knowing how they fit into their original context. In some respects Shakespeare seems to have reacted to the political and social events going on around him in much the same way as a modern television satirist would. Except, today's commentator wouldn't have to worry about having his nose cut off (or worse) if he go it too wrong. Of course, every play had to pass the censor before it could be staged. There's a post going up next week about one play from this period where the writer got it terribly wrong.

  8. It does sound like a good production. I saw the 1940s version on stage (with witches as nurses) in London last year or the year before. The staging was great - and far better than the BBC4 film of the same production.

    My one and only RSC experience was during my GCSEs when my dad took me to see Richard III. I didn't know the play at all, but was blown away at how easy it was to follow plot, characters etc when well staged with people who could make sense of the lines. I thought of that again last year, sat in the back of a nearly-bottom-set Y9 English class stumbling their way through the opening of Romeo and Juliet.

  9. Rose, there is absolutely no substitute for seeing Shakespeare on the stage, especially if you can see the best of the acting world involved. I do know how lucky I am to have the RSC right on my doorstep.