Last night I took my mother to see a master performance of this most difficult of plays.
Lead actor, Patrick Stewart, is magical; not just his deep famous voice, but for an ability to inject new life into words that are so well known the entire audience could speak them alongside him in unison like the Lord’s Prayer. His reading of the character of Macbeth is amazing, mesmerizing and shocking in its depths of deceit and the lies you can tell anyone; excepting yourself. However, the true monsters of the mind infect all the characters in this play and how they deal with them is the focus of the words. Happily all the actors rise to the occasion with sparkling performances and brilliant realisaitons, especially Lady Macbeth and the fantastic McDuff.
Acting aside, this setup of the stage should become the teaching guide on how to make one room work as multiple locations; use sound. The sound production was simply perfect. The sometimes quiet movements of background sound, or the jarring bursts punctuating moments, and often built into the actions of the players such as chopping up meat. It all is focused towards building some very real terror to the point of horror. The single set acts as a train, dinning room, kitchen, dungeon, bed chamber, battlefield and more with only a few chairs and two tables in different positions to differentiate them. This is all performed with a ballet like artistry that means one location almost morphs into another in a blink of an eye. One second you are watching a murder on a train and the next, the chairs have subtlety been moved a few feet and we are seated for dinner in castle Macbeth. Truly a masterclass and worth watching for this alone. The styling of placing the play in a 1950’s, semi Stalin-esk world worked wonderfully, as did bringing the usually super-over-hammed speeches of the witches into the setting by having the characters played by young girls and speaking at unusual speeds;
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
becoming almost a rap. Also, the script had not been bent at all to achieve this. For example, it was quite something to see Macbeth call for his armour and receive a flack jacket!
I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack’d.
Give me my armour.
‘Tis not needed yet.
I’ll put it on.
All of this visual and aural splendor could only be achieved by someone who has a very clear love and intimate understanding of the text. Without this, contextualising in such a way would have bumped against the words something awful.
Finally comes the play’s script itself. Shakespeare’s collected works are the most over-analysed collection of writings since the Bible. To save you the trouble of wading through the morass of comment on this play, suffice to say that it has some lines in it that were politically charged for the viewers at the time (James I especially, who was no stranger to maddening Scottish tales of blood, given his mothers life) and therefore they fail to make much sense to us now. However; this bothered me not at all. Macbeth is a dark poem, a smoothly dancing nightmare of falling. Of falling deeper into the abyss by one’s own hand. It is highly operatic and as such you will not fail to understand the meanings of any part, even if you do not know all the references; as they are each nailed into your heart. This is a masterpiece of horror writing with a build up to eternal damnation and the villains final realisation of Nihilism. Evil creeps up on you through your fears. Truly Yoda was right about that one; once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Macbeth’s final fear comes home to roost in the famous soliloquy:
The queen, my lord, is dead.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
What does this passage mean? Endless interpretations exist. Here is mine: Macbeth is saying that she should have died much later in life. The “dead” in “The queen, my lord, is dead” would have been a word that would have its natural time and it is not now. I believe it is here that Macbeth faces the main part of the witches fate that he has been trying to avoid. The death of this wife means that, as he feared, he would not have children to take the crown. In this moment his life’s meaning has collapsed and all that he has wrought has been for nothing. He tells us as much earlier, using it as the justification of killing Banquo:
…They hail’d him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If ‘t be so,
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!…
Being “fruitless” is Macbeth’s great fear, and indeed all King’s fears. Thus at this point is he undone by his wife’s death and it shatters his mind. This tally’s for me to his reactions later, when in combat, he keeps repeating the final witches taunting clue; that he cannot be killed by a man born of women.
Macbeth in these brief lines gives himself to the prophesy and realises that he is powerless to change it.
The guilty murders that he and his wife have committed have rebounded upon them, because one cannot lie to one’s own mind and one cannot escape fate. The witches have taken away his freewill and this, of course, leads to pure Nihilism. How could it not? As ‘Big N’ said:
“…if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
This production scores a pure and unadulterated 10/10 and must been seen to be believed. I eagerly await Hamlet next year!