By William Shakespeare Directed by Benjamin Blyth Presented by Malachite Theatre at the Rose Playhouse on 19 May 2015
In 1590 the future King of England, James VI of Scotland, sailed to Copenhagen to marry the Danish Princess Anne. Their return was blighted by such terrible storms the royal couple were almost shipwrecked. Under torture, Agnes Sampson of North Berwick confessed to welcoming the Devil on Auld Kirk Green with the express purpose of killing the King.
In 1606 the atmosphere across London was tense. The aloof James I was newly planted on his English throne, and his frequent treatises on the powers of witchcraft caused concern among the learned classes. It was in this world of suspicion and fear that William Shakespeare and the newly patronised King’s Men performed a new play examining the nature of kingship, power, mortality and the supernatural: Macbeth.
Newly arranged for the remains of the Rose Playhouse, join Shoreditch’s resident 5-star Shakespeare Company Malachite Theatre as we follow Shakespeare and his first Macbeth, Richard Burbage, south of the river from Shoreditch to Southwark, with this stunning new site-specific production.
One of the best Macbeths we’ve seen, combining a sustained supernatural presence with a psychological realism and realized with a great cast in a magical venue. The simple expedient of having the three witches almost permanently on stage, gathered in the far corner of the archeological site, forever busy around their bucket, dissipated the pantomime quality that often besets productions of this play. These are not walk-on witches, turning up to deliver a disconnected prophecy and then disappearing — they’re beavering away in the background all the time, a brooding presence threatening to burst through into our world with every stir of the pot. The second, simple innovation is to have Lady Macbeth alone on stage, reading the letter by candle light, as her husband and Banquo encounter the weird women on the heath. Orla Jackson is outstanding, creating an intimate domestic scene right in front of us while far behind her, on the far shore of the archeological pool, there is talk of war and battle and victory and then of greatness to come.
The first words spoken, as a bell tolls, are by Lady Macbeth, but they are not her words (1.5.1):
“They met me in the day of success…”
Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth
She is reading her husband’s letter, inhabited for a moment by the thoughts of another, not unlike the supernatural phenomenon of possession, in which control is ceded to an “external” agent. While possession is fiction, fiction itself is very real: we are creatures constantly imagining the world as other than it is, and looking for ways to shape the world to the way we want it to be. What is represented in this play is that process in action — the process of turning thought into action, turning a dream into reality (a reality that turns out to be a nightmare), ambition into a crown. The insight of this production is to have Lady Macbeth front and centre from the start, the real agent propelling Macbeth forward, the witches something of a sideshow, perhaps symbols of the cognition of which we are dimly aware.
At the end of his “shoal of time” soliloquy, Macbeth declares (1.7.25–27):
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Enter Lady Macbeth
For the first time, after seeing countless productions, I witnessed the truth of these lines enacted: Lady Macbeth is his spur, the embodiment of ambition. This can be worked out through literary reflection upon reading the text — after all, Duncan himself has just given us a clue when he refers to her as Macbeth’s “great love, sharp as his spur” (1.6.27) — but such desk-bound realizations pale next to enlightenment achieved in the semi-darkness of a cavernous space.
What helps this along is the rowdy offstage “wine and wassail”: most leading actors no doubt relish these great speeches and the opportunity to deliver them without distraction. Here, the reality of castle life in the aftermath of a military victory intrudes, and Benjamin Blyth (a tremendous Macbeth) is not only struggling against his own murderous thoughts but he’s had to extract himself from the noisy party to try and resolve his turbulent mind. And then in comes his wife, to bring an icy clarity.
Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance in 1.5, but we’ve already seen her reflecting on the contents of the letter two scenes earlier. One of witches even alludes to her experience as a nobleman’s wife, left at home while he goes off to war (1.3.8):
“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone…”
The candle she holds uplights her face, and the witches too are uplit, casting shadows of their spell-weaving limbs on the rear wall, dark shapes moving and flickering like the black vapours rising from their cauldron. GBs as she finishes the letter, and speaks her own idea of the present merging into the future (1.5.10–13):
Glamis thou art, and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature:
It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way…
She blows out the candle, as she means to extinguish this kindness, and strengthen his resolve. In 1.7, she quickly proves herself an effective spur and with the phrase “live a coward” (45) seems to push him over the edge. He runs at her and grabs her by the throat (48–49):
I dare do all that may become a man…
Benjamin Blyth Macbeth and Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth
Spousal violence does not “become a man” today (it was condoned in Shakespeare’s day, although even Petruchio, in the supposedly problematic Shrew, never strikes Kate), and we find such aggression intolerable. Lady Macbeth knows that her flinty purpose has sparked his dull stone into action, and she smiles. By the end of the scene he’s reassuring her (88):
I am settled…
Of course, he’s anything but “settled” in the sense of having an untroubled mind, and in the next scene he is pacing what could be the battlements of his castle (actually, the rear wall of the Rose) towards the witches, one of whom holds up a dagger (2.1.40–41):
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
(In fact, the dagger is held with the blade towards his hand, so that he approaches it point first.) This speech is heralded by a single ting of a triangle, a subtle grace note reminding us that the great consequences that will flow from his actions originate in something as ephemeral and evanescent as a thought.
Robert Madely doubles as Banquo and a brilliantly leery, leching Porter, inviting us to answer his “Knock, knock” with “Who’s there?” (we cottoned on, eventually), and bulking his few lines into a music hall act. As well as plenty of lascivious actions to illustrate his chat, he switches from low to falsetto as he contrasts “persuades” with “disheartens” (2.3.24). There’s also a big contrast between the first booming “Anon” and the second, more laid back, “anon” (15).
Although Macbeth’s the one who’s been dashing around vanquishing traitors, consulting with witches, murdering kings, he’s been overshadowed so far by his wife — one of the remarkable achievements of this production. As he grows in stature and status, as he becomes king, he also begins to fray at the edges and we see him seeing himself as far from secure (3.1.51):
To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
Our fears in Banquo stick deep…
This soliloquy builds to a crescendo as he realizes that all his ambition will result in raising another lineage to the throne (68–73):
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind:
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered:
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.
We have here, writ large, Othello’s rage when he suspects Desdemona’s infidelity: for a man to labour only to have his male parental investment squandered on another man’s child is, for his genes, a total disaster. Macbeth’s adaptive emotions of jealousy and anger are fragments of a mental landscape that is already cracking up. He’s tipped over the edge during the banquet scene (3.4), when Banquo first appears on the rear wall, at some distance physically but already too close for Macbeth’s comfort. Lady Macbeth is holding it together as best she can, the hostess at a dinner party that’s rapidly turning into a scene from a horror movie. Through gritted teeth and with clenched fist she appeals to her husband (96–97):
My worthy lord,
Your noble friends do lack you.
Her brave face is faltering under the pressure. This is not what she had bargained for. GBs. The lords chip in (107):
Our duties and the pledge.
Macbeth, collapsing into a chair, spews blood into a white bowl and over the table. By “rugged Russian bear” (116) the ghost of Banquo has translated itself right there, in front of Macbeth, allowing him no escape, no respite. The lords disappear, and the king is reduced to a babbling, pitiful wreck (157–59):
I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
He’s whimpering like a baby, and Lady Macbeth mothers him, rubbing his head and back and showing an obscene tenderness. (This interpretation is supported by the final phrase: they are “young in deed.”)
The witches are joined by apparitions, one of whom warns him to beware Macduff (4.1.77). The red strip lights come on, wiring the whole space with their hellish glow. Macbeth wants to know one thing (108–11):
Yet my heart
Throbs to know one thing: tell me, if your art
Can tell so much, shall Banquo’s issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?
The witches mime the killing of the Macduff women and children, the uplighting exaggerating their gestures by projecting long shadows on to the wall. Poor Macduff staggers under the weight of this news, and insists he must “feel it as a man” (4.3.255) before he takes action. David Knight as the stricken father and husband speaks softly, and is shaking with grief. He also asks, almost as a passing thought, (257–58):
Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?
It’s an awkward question for anyone who believes in a god who is all good, all knowing and all powerful (the problem of suffering).
There is a fine piece of rational thinking when the doctor, faced with Lady Macbeth’s unravelling, declares (5.1.24–25):
Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Contrast this with the fact that, as far as we know, not one of the witnesses of the many deeds and sayings of Jesus thought to do the same, so leaving Christianity to be founded on hearsay upon hearsay rather than any more credible sources.
This final scene for Lady Macbeth is superbly handled by Orla Jackson, whose cry on reaching the phrase “little hand” (38) turns into a silent scream. After the desperate actions, the frantic and yet oblivious glances about her, she resolves to go to bed and repeats the phrase (50):
To bed, to bed, to bed.
GBs. She is whispering by now, but the low volume signs off a compelling performance (although not for one guy in the front row, who was yawning and checking his watch at this point).
Macbeth hears the news of his wife’s death and reflects on fragility of life (5.5.24):
Life’s but a walking shadow…
The three witches are walking along below the rear wall, casting their own shadows, both literally and figuratively.
Macduff vanquishes Macbeth, and cries out from the far corner (5.7.98):
Malcolm is on stage to receive the news of victory, creating a sense of the space of the battlefield that is not usually possible in most theatres.