Macbeth (2002)

‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare (National Tour April-May).

We presented a dynamic production of the Shakespearian tragedy of blood and ambition which opened in Riverbank, Newbridge on 10th April and returned after a tour on 23rd May 2002. The production was part of our educational programme, in that it was sold mainly to schools and colleges studying the text, with matinees and post show discussions as part of the touring package. See below for a selection of director’s notes from the programme.

Macbeth was be played by Darren Donohue and Lady Macbeth by Yvonne O’ Hara. Members of our Kildare Youth Theatre and of our Children’s Theatre (Crooked Mice) took part in the production, giving them the opportunity to be involved with a professional company at this level. In addition, student actors from VTOS Theatre Studies played in the production. Other roles were played by Steve Gunn (Macduff), Nick Devlin (Banquo), Sarah Kearney (Lady Macduff), Frank Conlan (Duncan), Stuart Mc Glynn (Ross), Eric Higgins (Lennox), Keith Burke (Malcolm), Ian Hollinshead (Fleance).

The production was directed by Peter Hussey, designed by CiarĂ¡n Aspell and stage managed by Bonnie McCormick. Deborah Ni Chaoimhe designed costumes.

It toured to Theatre Royal, Waterford (April 24 – 26) and to the Garage Theatre, Monaghan (May 13 – 15).

Representing the witches

In considering the possibilities for presenting the witches, we were concerned to find a way that would stress their ethereal nature and their ability to invoke fear. In Elizabethan England belief in the power of witchcraft was strong and so a theatre could present them visibly on stage, in the certain knowledge that the audience would recognise and fear them. Today, popular culture has shifted the representation of evil from the visible to the invisible, from the physical to the spiritual. In addition, as the best film-makers know, to truly invoke fear you should leave as much as possible up to the audience’s imagination for nothing is more frightening than that which you conjure up yourself. Therefore, the witches are invisible, allowing themselves to be felt, heard and summoned by those who have a mind for it. They are there if you really want them to be there.

How to kill a king

Being a monarch was a dangerous business in Britain. Several fell to the axe, blade or rope-weapons usually wielded by their uncles, powerful nobles, siblings and relatives. However, when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth Elizabeth I had just died of natural causes having ruled for decades. Her successor, James I, believed in divine absolutism, that is, that kings were agents of God and had a divine right to rule. In presenting Macbeth to James I, Shakespeare is, on one hand, saying that only those possessed by the Devil would dream of killing a monarch.

On the other hand he is catching something of the spirit of his time, and suggesting that once the king is seen to be vulnerable, human, infallible, not to mention wicked, then he is fair game and should be removed by whatever means necessary. Less than 30 years after Shakespeare died, James’ son, Charles I, was executed during a popular revolt led by, not the warring nobility, but the emerging middle class.In that short space of time Britain saw a profound shift in popular and cultural attitude regarding the sanctity of the monarch.

In the beginning of our play the Macbeths are embarking on a truly dreadful deed, beyond the imaginative scope of most of those around them. By the end of the play we realise that the boy king, Malcolm, has little hope of survival, now that Macbeth has shown the lords that all it takes is a knife, a party, and the cover of darkness.

Public and Private

The language of Macbeth shifts between the formal, public declarations of loyalty, welcome, communal ritual, and the informal, private deliberations and anxieties of the individual. The images Shakespeare employs for formal speeches are, for the most part, suitably forced. But those he deploys in private conversations and in heated reflections are vivid, electric and compelling. The dialogue between characters when they are ‘in private’ is tougher and sharper than much of what is found in modern drama.

In this production we have used the public, formal discourse to help us build images of the feudal, hierarchical and strict culture prevailing when Duncan is king. The characters bark, bow, stiffen and act as one unit in this rigid society. That is the price they pay for order, stability, unity.
This social order, however, is becoming harder and harder to maintain-rebellion, civil war, and invasion are all symptoms of an authority slipping. The private discourse allows us to create contemporary gestures, mannerisms, whisperings, mumbles and hesitancies.

For us, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are an early prototype of the Machiavellian modern partnership, the type that would blossom with the burgeoning capitalist world and who will bend the inhibiting medieval social order to their will. They are presumably what Shakespeare saw all around him and, crucially, what was within himself as well (property owner, business man, profiteer). Possibly, as a writer, Shakespeare uses characters in other plays as developments and as experiments for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Goneril, Regan and Edmund in Lear; Tamara and Aaron in Titus Andronicus; Volumnia and Coriolanus in Coriolanus). They are eager, fascinating, self-seeking individuals who are still loosely tethered to the old, formal, public world of medieval order but who are straining greedily towards the promising utopia of capitalism and industry. If modern tragedy can be said to have a unifying theme in the way that Greek tragedy arguably did, then it is perhaps provided not so much by the ultimate victory of these characters (salesmen, bureaucrats, power brokers, slave traders) but by the price they paid to create that victory-the suppression of the regulatory human qualities. Lady Macbeth’s invocation of the spirits to turn her milk to gall so that she can achieve her fell purpose is the moral cornerstone on which their progress is built.

The endless, king becoming graces

Duncan comes in a line of interesting patriarchal figures found in Shakespeare – all of whom make some disastrous mistake of judgement early in the play that sparks untold misery for those around them and for the world in general. The mistake is usually connected to a very public conferring of power or succession (Lear dividing his kingdom and leaving it to the wrong children; Titus nominating the wrong successor for emperor). How many people have to die – often horribly – before a patriarch learns something about humanity?

Shakespeare seems to imply, at the end of these plays, that the suffering has been worth it because the patriarch has been humanised, has found inner peace. Thus, the world sacrifices itself to the edification of old men who, in the process of learning about it, destroy it. Duncan, however, is a little different in this regard than the other kings in Shakespeare. His mistake lies not with the choice of successor; rather, it is in the choice of his allies and friends. Because he has invested trust in the wrong people in the past-and now again, in Macbeth-the country has gone to war. Additionally, his timing in announcing the succession could have been better. If Macbeth needed a spur to prick the sides of his intent, then this could easily have been it.

Shakespeare goes to great lengths to expound the king-becoming graces, and to contrast good kings with bad ones (Edward of England and Duncan are pitted against Macbeth in this respect). However, the scene in which kingship is examined by Macduff and the apprentice king, Malcolm, (Act 4 Scene 3) is perhaps the most overwritten in the play and causes several production problems, most notably in that it breaks the mounting tension. The scenes before it are action packed and indeed some braking device is needed before the build-up to the final climax, but this one is far too long. The message that benign kings are divine and bad ones diabolic is emphasised to the point that it becomes repetitive and didactic. Presumably this is for the benefit of his patron, James I, who fervently believed in divine absolutism. All of which may go to show that it is never a good idea for artists, then as now, to dilute their art to suit the expectations of those funding it.