A Scottish tragedy

Macbeth, Trafalgar Studio 1, 23 February 2013

Jamie Lloyd set his production of Macbeth in a future Scotland ruined by civil war and social breakdown brought about by cataclysmic climate change.

The problem with a power struggle set in a ruined dystopia is that it is essentially a fight over nothing. This Macbeth overthrew Duncan and became king of little more than a dwindling stock of tinned food. The outcome did not matter.

This goes contrary to the play where insurrections against Duncan’s rule are being extinguished just at it begins, meaning that Macbeth’s own insurrection violates the ensuing peace. He helps to restore order and then becomes the principal agent of a truly chaotic disorder that flows not from any external source but purely from his own temperament.

The setting of this production shaped the portrayal of the principal characters. This, together with the relative inexperience of James McAvoy and Claire Foy in Shakespearean acting, meant that the result was unengaging at a dramatic level, however visually striking the staging.

The set was the dark inside of a ruined building with a wash basin downstage, scattered furniture, and a toilet bowl in an alcove. The sound of dripping water signalled the dystopian context.

After an initial sequence involving some soldiers in battle, the witches (Allison McKenzie, Lisa Gardner and Olivia Morgan) gathered in their combat overalls and face masks (1.1). They underlit their own faces with lamps to eerie effect. Not surprisingly the references to Graymalkin and the paddock were cut as the witches lit red smoke flares to create the “fog and filthy air”.

The lights dimmed and a sound like thunder sounded to mark the scene changes.

Duncan (Hugh Ross) questioned the bloodied Captain (Olivia Morgan again) about the course of battle (1.2). When Duncan asked if events had dismayed Macbeth and Banquo, she relished the trick of at first answering “Yes” and then adding the qualification “as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion”.

Duncan was elderly and surprisingly spoke with a decidedly English accent, almost Home Counties RP, which sat awkwardly with the pronounced Scottishness of the other characters.

The witches appeared briefly and announced Macbeth’s arrival but without the following “weird sisters, hand in hand” lines (1.3). Because of her face mask, one of the witches’ words were blurred and indistinct.

Macbeth’s entry was an event in itself. James McAvoy ran onstage holding a machete in one hand and an axe in the other, his face and clothes soaked in blood. With hindsight, this bloody first appearance was a mistake. Fresh from battle and completely psyched-up by hand-to-hand combat, he growled in the face of a front row audience member, before returning upstage, banging his instruments of death on the ground.

The witches confronted Macbeth and Banquo (Forbes Masson) with their face masks neatly interpreted by Banquo as beards. They delivered their prophecies, but when Macbeth tried to question them more, the lights flickered and they disappeared.

It seemed incongruous that this warlike, aggressive Macbeth would in effect hide behind Banquo and let him do most of the work challenging these interlopers. His quiescence here suggested that the text did not justify the director’s initial portrayal of Macbeth.

Ross (Richard Hansell) and Angus (Callum O’Neill) were immediately seized upon, and Ross had to deliver his news with a machete held to his neck, such was the paranoia of the embattled comrades.

Macbeth’s contemplation of his “thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” indicated the direction his mind was taking.

Duncan greeted Banquo and Macbeth; the latter made a jocular entrance by being brought in hooded like a prisoner before his true identity was revealed (1.4).

Despite Duncan’s affability, Banquo seemed nervous when addressing him. His “There if I grow, the harvest is your own” was said haltingly with a side-glance at Macbeth. Perhaps this was Banquo’s awareness of talking about “growth” in Macbeth’s presence, given the significance of the witches’ prophecies.

After Duncan bestowed his estate on Malcolm (Mark Quartley) the stage cleared for Macbeth to speak of his “black and deep desires” in soliloquy rather than as an aside.

Lady Macbeth read Macbeth’s letter out loud (1.5). It became apparent early on that Claire Foy was not an effective Lady Macbeth. As with many inexperienced Shakespearean actresses, there was a shallow brittleness to her portrayal of a character that demands power and depth.

She snapped at the messenger who brought news of the King’s arrival. Left alone once more she paused at length and then turned towards the door through which the messenger had just left to deliver her “unsex me here” speech.

Macbeth burst in upon her with characteristic vigour. Walking was never rapid enough for him. Their initial meeting and its hugs cemented their firm intention to murder Duncan.

A scene change saw Lady Macbeth grab a duster and spray an air freshener round her head as Duncan’s party entered. This made an unnecessarily silly joke out of Duncan’s initial comment about the castle having “a pleasant air”. It was as if the director were poking fun at the ridiculous way Shakespeare’s text refused to accord with his vision of the play.

Lady Macbeth was discovered lounging on the ground, which seemed unlikely given that the set indicated their residence to be a ruin too. As the royal party made themselves at home, the soldiers started ripping the ring pulls from cans of beer. The resulting spray accompanied their cheers as the hospitality flowed.

Desire

The toilet bowl was dragged from the alcove to centre stage just before Macbeth, again running at full pelt, rushed in from stage right and threw up into it (1.7). The vomiting indicated the nervousness underlying his desire that Duncan’s murder were best “done quickly”.

Here as elsewhere, there was no sense that Macbeth was a potentially noble man on a descent path. Rather than marking a new departure, he seemed to be acting in complete consistency with his previous self.

He directed much of his speech in the direction of the room he had just left. There was a long pause before he announced that only “vaulting ambition” spurred him on. But this Macbeth was so much the action hero that any sign of introspection seemed extraneous.

When he told Lady Macbeth that they would “proceed no further in this business”, she responded with hectoring sarcasm. As he listened to her accusations of cowardice, he brought his fingers to his lips trying to shush her before finally snapping “Prithee, peace”.

As Lady Macbeth swore to dash out her own baby’s brains, her husband tenderly caressed her stomach, a faint reference to McAvoy’s statement in an interview that the Macbeths’ childlessness was significant.

Her courage and constancy seemed to assuage Macbeth. She outlined how she would get Duncan’s guards drunk, and he embraced her again, full of love for his warrior wife who should “bring forth men-children only”.

Fleance (Graeme Dalling) was a young man rather than a child, which became apparent when Banquo discovered him kissing a girl, so that his “How goes the night, boy?” was slightly comic (2.1).

Macbeth was patently lying when he said he had not thought about the weird sisters.

The vision of the invisible dagger sent Macbeth reeling across the stage onto the floor stage left. This was a very strong reaction and a very realistic one. He grasped at the invisible blade in midair centre stage.

It seemed to disappear from his view and he moved stage right where he caught sight of the blade again, reeling backwards once more. He summoned his courage and approached it as if it were a fearsome enemy. He questioned the vision, putting an interrogative uplift on “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going?”

Convinced that the vision lacked substance, Macbeth bent anguished over a table to say “There’s no such thing”.

The bell rang and Macbeth walked slowly upstage through the stage seats to do his duty.

No sooner had he vanished from view than Lady Macbeth entered via the stage right door and slammed it behind her fresh from drugging the grooms (2.2)

Macbeth appeared with the daggers, his hands covered in blood. But because we had seen him much muckier than this before, the sight of him drenched in Duncan’s blood made no real impact. He was comparatively cleaner than on his first appearance, so that the transformation conveyed no real shock.

The only register of a change in Macbeth came from the way he stammered over the word “Amen”, a speech impediment that would extend later to his faltering over other words to signify his inner turmoil. From this point on he would also expel sharp bursts of breath as if forestalling a panic attack.

Macbeth washed his hands in the downstage basin as the knocking at the door began. Lady Macbeth returned with her hands bloodied, but again this had little impact given the overall atmosphere of dishevelment. Shed blood in Macbeth has greatest force when on pristine white clothes.

The female Porter (Lisa Gardner again) was loud and entertaining, particularly when she protractedly spat at the mention of an English tailor (2.3).

She described the effects of drink on men without any of the lewd priapic gestures that often accompany this sequence.

As Macbeth edged nervously into the room, Macduff (Jamie Ballard) asked him if the King were awake. His reply “Not yet” verged on the comic and drew titters from the audience, which would work well in a farce, but not in a tragedy.

Macbeth escorted Macduff towards the royal chamber and then sat glancing nervously in the same direction when talking to Lennox (Kevin Guthrie).

Macduff returned looking stunned, but his repeated “horror, horror, horror” was surprisingly unconvincing. What was supposed to be a look of terror conveyed only leaden immobility.

Klaxon

The bell was rung in the form of a loud klaxon, which meant that Lady Macbeth’s question about the “hideous trumpet” was barely audible.

Macbeth confessed to killing the grooms and Lady Macbeth fainted. In the general confusion it was understandable that no one questioned Macbeth’s version of events. Malcolm and Donalbain (Graeme Dalling again) fled to England and Ireland respectively.

The brief recap scene saw Hugh Ross appear again as the Doctor (Old Man) in a wheelchair (2.4). This was confusing because he was immediately identifiable beneath his hat and it seemed for a brief instant as if Duncan had merely been invalided.

Banquo stole from Macbeth’s food cupboard and filled his rucksack with tins as he announced that his friend “hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all” (3.1). Macbeth discovered Banquo in flagrante delicto and his outward friendliness was undercut by suspicious looks, culminating in a rifle through the rucksack to discover the loot.

It was already possible to see that Macbeth’s attitude to “our chief guest” was changing to Banquo’s great disadvantage.

Macbeth had to usher his wife out of the room before having the murderers summoned and delivering his “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”.

For some strange reason “issue” was changed to “children”, the resulting “For Banquo’s children have I filed my mind” seemed an unnecessary change. The term “issue” in context is perfectly understandable, no less opaque than “filed my mind”. Though it is possible this was one of the errors that McAvoy admitted occasionally making.

The murderers (Allison McKenzie and Olivia Morgan again) wore whole head masks, one a horror head, the other a pig. The pig head mask was perhaps a nod to the scene in McAvoy’s Macbeth in Shakespeare Re-told in which he butchered a pig’s head “from the nave to the chops” in echo of the Captain’s description of him in 1.2.

Macbeth gave them his instructions with special emphasis on including Fleance in the slaughter.

Lady Macbeth interrupted Macbeth’s chain of thought telling him “’Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy” rather than saying it to nobody (3.2).

His mind wracked with doubts, Macbeth seemed genuinely relieved when his wife assuaged his fears about Banquo and Fleance saying “But in them nature’s copy’s not eterne” before hinting as his plan to have them murdered.

The murderers set upon Banquo and Fleance, surprising them by emerging out of the dark (3.3). Fleance escaped and climbed to an area immediately above the stage where, safe and sound, he looked down upon the scene of carnage.

Because of the post-apocalyptic setting, the banquet prepared for Macbeth’s guests was a grim stew served from a large catering casserole on metal plates (3.4). Emboldened by his kingship, , Macbeth made a joke of sitting astride the table facing his wife when he said “here I’ll sit in the midst”. Although table manners were not that important in post-apocalyptic Scotland, this provoked puzzled disquiet from the guests as Macbeth looked over his shoulder at those sat further down the table, before he broke into ‘got you’ laughter and descended.

The murderer appeared to bring his mixed news, and the dinner guests turned away into the set’s alcoves to provide some non-naturalistic privacy.

Invited to take the seat at the other, downstage, end of the table, Macbeth gaped at it in fear and recoiled in the same way he had reacted on seeing the phantom dagger. As he stared at Banquo’s invisible ghost, he faced directly down the length of the table and out towards the audience.

He approached the empty seat and screamed at it as the guests rose to leave. Macbeth regained his calm and sat in the empty seat only for the bloodied Banquo to appear out of the trap downstage and move to the opposite end of the table to Macbeth provoking another round of outbursts. This time Macbeth climbed onto the table, as did Banquo, leading to a face-off between them as the guests scattered.

The Macbeths were left to themselves. Macbeth’s comment “blood will have blood” prompted a splattering of blood to fall from nowhere onto the table. This was odd because there was no telling whether it was supposed to be real or an extension of Macbeth’s vision seen only by him.

Their quiet conversation culminating in his “I am in blood stepped in so far…” gave us a brief flash of Macbeth’s reflective side, which was otherwise too often subsumed under his action man persona. After this quiet moment the interval came.

Interval

The Hecate scene (3.5) and expository/recap scene (3.6) were cut, as was the Hecate, bubbling cauldron introduction to 4.1.

The second half began with Macbeth, still sat round the dinner table, summoning the witches, asking them “What is it you do?” almost as if talking to himself and not expecting their response, “A deed without a name”, which emanated from below the stage as a whisper.

Once they popped out through the traps, he demanded answers from them. Macbeth ladled liquid into his mouth from the casserole and then convulsed so that the voices of the apparitions was his own altered voice. He took a new gulp for the second apparition.

This was a clever idea but one which looked clumsy, almost comical in performance, particularly when McAvoy had to question the apparitions and have a conversation with himself switching from normal to possessed.

Having been warned about Macduff as well as being comforted by his indestructibility and the impossibility of a wood moving, Macbeth needed to know whether Banquo’s children would ever rule. The witches told him not to seek this information, but Macbeth defiantly picked up the casserole, cast aside the ladle and drank the contents straight from its wide brim.

The eight kings appeared as figures in grey fatigues and gas masks, with the bloodied Banquo reappearing from upstage with his hands outstretched to the appalled Macbeth.

The witches vanished, and when Lennox entered Macbeth grabbed him and forced him down onto the table to ask him if he had seen them.

Hearing about Macduff’s flight to England, Macbeth vowed to kill the man’s family.

Lady Macduff (Allison McKenzie again) sat at one end of a long dining table while her son (Ryan Elliott) sat at the other (4.2). Ross stood as if newly-arrived, told her of her husband’s flight, and warned of the impending danger to her.

After Ross left there was a long pause before Lady Macduff announced to her son that his father was dead. Unfortunately the first-time boy actor playing her son was softly spoken and barely audible even from the third row. Nevertheless, the joking about the bad people outnumbering and overwhelming the good was still funny.

Forewarned of imminent danger, Lady Macduff hid her son in a cupboard under the table.

The murderers burst in, and the first among them was Macbeth himself. This was perfectly consistent with his previous first-person formulations beginning “The castle of Macduff I will surprise…”

Macbeth cooly sat and watched as his two accomplices laid Lady Macduff out on the table and garrotted her with a length of rope, resulting in her protracted strangulation.

The business done, Macbeth was just about to close the door behind him to leave, when he turned back and addressed her dead body to say “He’s a traitor”. Young Macduff, still hidden inside the cupboard, rose to this affront and called out “Thou liest!”

Macbeth, still acting with complete calm, took his machete and with a swift, single stroke punched it through the end of the cupboard. Young Macduff screamed in pain as the bloody weapon was withdrawn.

The change of setting to England was marked by a ragged crowd of Englishmen carrying placards with slogans about the “green and pleasant land” together with “no sin” and other strange messages.

Macduff’s attempt to win over Malcolm was a long scene that was under-directed and lacked interest to the point of being soporific. Although Jamie Ballard gave his best, the scene was let down by Mark Quartley’s Malcolm in whom it was difficult to maintain interest. This was possibly the director’s fault because he ensured that the pace of the scene was slow, with Malcolm speaking very slowly, pausing between each word of his list of “king-becoming graces”. Instead of creating atmosphere or tension this only engendered tedium.

Macduff despaired and walked out the upstage aisle until Malcolm feebly called him back. He announced that his mind had been changed by Macduff’s “noble passion”. At this point, the possibility arose that Malcolm’s soporific delivery was intended to characterise his weakness. If so, it was not an efficient means. Malcolm resolved to fight.

Ross, after his initial equivocation, conveyed the news that Macduff’s family had been killed. Macduff’s reaction was restrained and, like his underpowered reaction to seeing Duncan murdered, there was a lack of fit between his words and their delivery.

Although he had tears in his eyes, the only genuine emotion seemed to come when he became angry and swore revenge. He faced the audience to shout that he should meet “front to front…this fiend of Scotland”.

The Doctor and Gentlewoman (Olivia Morgan again) discussed Lady Macbeth’s distracted state. The woman herself entered in a nightdress and carrying a torch, which she shone all around, even into the audience (5.1).

She knelt and placed the still lit torch by her side as she acted washing her hands and re-enacted recent events, with the Doctor clueless as to a cure.

This scene can often, in the hands of a skilled actress, be compelling. But here it was a case of going through the motions of a popular classic without any real feeling or depth behind the words.

A brief scene showed some Scottish soldiers advance and then discuss the impending arrival of the English forces led by Malcolm and Macduff, as well as Macbeth’s preparations (5.2).

Ladder

Macbeth made a dynamic entry, sliding down a stage ladder like it was a fire pole, to order confidently “Bring me no more reports…” (5.3). He dispatched the messenger who brought news of the English forces with similar assurance, before getting Seyton (Lisa Gardner again) to put on his armour, which was some kind of stab vest.

The action froze and the characters from 5.3 were plunged into darkness as Malcolm, Macduff and others stormed the stage, the Scots with characteristic blue woad painted in two-tone shades on their faces, Braveheart-style (5.4).

As they were near Birnam Wood, they decided to use it as camouflage.

The invading army cleared the stage and the action switched back to Dunsinane as the characters who had rested in darkness were lit again and came to life (5.5).

A cry of multiple female voices, possibly a recorded sound, was heard offstage. Macbeth heard of his wife’s death whilst sitting down, so that his philosophical reflection on life was delivered from a position of comfort. He ran the first “Tomorrow” directly on from his previous thought, as if snapping into the following idea, then paused to continue with the rest of the sequence.

Yet again, this moment of introspection and reflection felt unnatural coming from this Macbeth. James McAvoy delivered the lines like it was something by William McGonagall. What is normally one of the highlights of any Macbeth fell flat as the man stared into the distance and spoke with shades of a dignity he had never possessed and so could not lose tragically.

A very scared messenger brought Macbeth news of the moving wood, which he dismissed not angrily but with impassive denial. His “liar and slave” was almost unemotional as if still stunned by the death of his wife.

But then he looked at the ground and began to laugh as if seeing the funny side of the equivocating trick the witches had played on him, before resolving to fight come what may.

The invading army bearing tree branches entered from the street through an outer door of the studio. A curtain was drawn and, as we glimpsed the houses on the other side of the street, the soldiers and their camouflage marched in before casting the branches to the ground (5.6).

Macbeth, armed only with his machete, confronted a soldier bearing a rifle (5.7). Despite the advantage of brandishing a firearm, the soldier was easily beaten by Macbeth, who brushed his weapon aside before beating him to the ground.

As he stood over his defeated enemy, Macbeth decided to finish him off properly with his blade, making sense of his “whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them” (5.8).

Macduff, armed with a similar blade, almost passed by Macbeth. But he recognised his enemy’s voice and ordered the hell-hound to turn.

They fought and Macbeth easily overpowered Macduff, dragging him backwards and holding his blade to his neck as if ready to deliver the coup de grace.

Macduff’s claim that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely wound” was like kryptonite for Macbeth. He relaxed his grip and let Macduff go. He threw aside his blade and, kneeling, said that he would not fight Macduff. As he knelt a shower of blood cascaded down on to him.

Refusing to yield too, he simply engaged with Macduff unarmed and was swiftly run through. Macduff broke his neck with an audible snap to finish him off.

Macduff bundled Macbeth’s body down a trap and followed it, disappearing from view.

As Malcolm surveyed the outcome of the battle, Macduff popped up from a different trap door with Macbeth’s severed head and hailed Malcolm as king (5.9). He proceeded to hold it above his own head so that the freshly-spilt blood tricked down over his own face.

He presented the head to Malcolm who held it gingerly while announcing the arrangements for his coronation at Scone. The stage went dark and for several seconds nothing happened until I clapped my hands together to kick-start the audience applause.

Eerily and frighteningly, almost everyone behind me was giving the performance a standing ovation.

Conclusions

Macbeth is not a play specifically about Scotland, in the same way that The Merchant of Venice and Othello are not plays about Venice, and Hamlet is not a play about Denmark. To make it specific is to reduce it.

Nowhere in James McAvoy’s Macbeth was there any indication of the noble person he could have become had he not succumbed to his ambitions. He began as a blood-soaked street fighter and ended just the same. The blood shed during the killing of Duncan only has the power to shock if it stains fresh, clean clothes, not dirty rags already encrusted with the blood of war.

With no descent from nobility of character there is no tragedy and no drama, just a series of events.

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