“Macbeth” in performance

Macbeth seems to me particularly difficult to bring off in performance. At least, I have never seen a version on stage that I have found satisfactory – even productions featuring renowned Shakespeareans in the principal roles have disappointed. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and I am sure there have been many fine productions that I have missed, but limiting myself (as I must) to what I have seen, far from being overwhelmed, as I should be on seeing a great Shakespeare tragedy, I have all too frequently found myself barely whelmed at all. The film versions I have seen haven’t frankly been much better; and the BBC Shakespeare version (from the early 1980s), despite starring eminent actors Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles, was distinctly disappointing.

I have often wondered why this is. After all, it is dramatically very compact (it’s one of Sheakespeare’s shortest plays), and is crammed full of murders and battles and witches and ghosts and all the rest of it. Part of it, I think, is to do with the pacing. The tension builds powerfully and unremittingly over the first two acts, but after that, although we get a series of extremely memorable scenes (the banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, etc.), the tension can sag quite alarmingly in the scenes in between. (This is particularly true of the long scene in Act 4 set in England.) Of course, Shakespeare was, certainly by this stage of his career, a master of pacing, and the rather awkward pacing of this play rather inclines me to think that what we have is an edited version of a text that had initially been longer. Be that as it may, it does present some problems in performance.

Another problem, I think, lies in the dramatic content being too exciting. This may seem a rather perverse thing to say, but the “greatness” of any drama we think of as “great” (whatever we may mean by that) lies not so much in the plot – i.e. the sequence of events – but in matters that go deeper; but, with this play, the plot itself is so very exciting on the surface, it becomes difficult for a production to peer beneath that surface: all too often, we find ourselves horrified by what the Macbeths do to others, whereas the heart of the tragedy lies, I think, in what they do to themselves. And if a production fails to bring to the fore this particular horror, this terrible damnation of their souls that they inflict upon themselves, then, no matter how exciting the plot may be, I don’t know that the production can count as a total success. But piercing through the excitement of the plot to see the dark horror at the heart of things is not an easy thing to do. And this, I think, is why so many productions of this play have left me unmoved: the horror of what we see on the surface seems all too often to obscure the even greater horror beneath.

Of course, I am sure there have been many very fine productions of Macbeth: it’s just that stagings of this particular play have disappointed me more often than that of any other major work by Shakespeare. It may, of course, be that I have been unlucky in the productions I have seen. But there is one production I have seen (sadly, not on stage) that seems to be one of the finest of any production I have seen, of any play. And this is the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Fortunately, we have a record of this: the production was filmed for television, and broadcast in 1979. And it is available nowadays on DVD. I saw it again a few days ago: and yes, it was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Suddenly, all the reservations I have had about the pacing of this play seemed to vanish.

Macbeths

Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

And this was done not through butchering the text: apart from the scene involving Hecate (which is almost certainly a later addition, and not written by Shakespeare), the text presented, a few minor cuts apart, was virtually complete. Even the scene featuring the witches speaking to each other about the latest spells they have cast – a scene all too often excised these days, as modern audiences aren’t taken in by all that superstition – was retained. But what impressed was the way the entire play was conceived.

Although it features battles, witches, murder, a state banquet, and all the rest of it, it eschews spectacle completely. It is staged throughout in a profound darkness, from which the characters emerge at times into a murky kind of light, and into which, their parts done, they vanish again. The lighting is extraordinary. I can but guess at what the effect must have been like live in performance, but, watching it on my television screen, it seemed like a production designed specifically with the screen in mind, rather than a straight filming of a stage production.

Most of the shots are in close-up: some in extreme close-up. The characters, brightly spotlit against a blanket of the dark, are all we can see on screen. Props are kept to a minimum: even in the banquet scene, they appear to be sitting on crates. All this creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. (The production was staged in a small theatre, rather in in the main RSC theatre in Stratford, thus ensuring the audience was close to the actors.) After a while, it starts to feel genuinely oppressive, as, indeed, it should.

LadyMacbeth

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

None of this would have mattered, of course, if the cast weren’t up to it, but there’s no danger of that. The supporting cast (featuring two actors who were themselves notable Macbeths later in their careers – Bob Peck and Greg Hicks) is uniformly excellent; but in this play, it is the two principals who dominate. And here, Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench give performances that, even on repeated viewings, freeze the soul with terror. We see the most terrible things on stage, of course: at one point, a child is murdered before our very eyes. But at the heart of the tragedy is what these two people do to themselves. In the great banquet scene, Ian MacKellen presents Macbeth as a man who is already mentally unhinged: the sight of him literally foaming at the mouth in sheer terror is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. And in the sleepwalking scene, Judi Dench presents a Lady Macbeth who, while still on this bank and shoal of time, is already a damned soul suffering the torments of Hell. And we can’t but ask ourselves “What have these people done to their immortal souls?”

Ian Mckellen - Macbeth

Ian Mackellen as Macbeth

I saw this production again last weekend, and it remains a nerve-racking experience. Somehow, not even the most frightening of horror films can quite match the intensity of horror projected here.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by David Gouldstone on August 29, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Much the best I’ve seen (of about a dozen productions over about forty years) was an RSC version in the mid 80s, with Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack. I remember that he got a big (intentional) laugh on ”Twas a rough night’; there can’t be many Macbeths who find comedy in the role (though of course only very fleetingly). The whole production turned the screws on the audience’s nerves without relenting; it was quite terrifying. Towards the end the walls of the scenery closed in on Macbeth (by physically moving), which sounds corny, and could have been in a less assured production, but got a real gasp of horror and fear from the audience. I see there’s a short audio clip on Youtube.

    Reply

    • Hello David, and my apologies for having taken so long to get back to you.

      The production you refer to seems to be from 1986 (http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/search/rsc-performances/mac198611-macbeth). We were at Stratford as well that year, and saw Sinead Cusack play Juliet Juliet and Lady Macbeth in a single season does seem an unlikely pairing!

      Both Sinead Cusack and Jonathan Pryce are wonderful actors, and I’d very much have loved to have seen their Macbeth. As I said, i haven’t really been very lucky in the Macbeths I have seen on stage.

      I saw Jonathan Pryce on my very first visit to Stratford, in 1978, where he played Angelo in Measure for Measure. And Sinead Cusack I saw more recently at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, playing Paulina in the Winter’s Tale.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Is the Judi Dench version the one where the Macbeths are sat at the dinner table and the witches are underneath the table like ghostly figures?
    Its the witches that always mar the productions for me …

    Reply

    • Yes, the witches are often difficult to bring off. But I think you must be thinking of a different production: the witches are not seen here under the dinner table.

      They are actually very well done here, and are played straight. They do project, as they should, a sense of the eldritch.

      Reply

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