I’m usually wary of Macbeth. It’s the witches, really: how do you stage them when for a modern audience a witch connotes not terror, but trick or treat?
The current production at the Trafalgar Studios confronts this issue head on by creating a dystopic vision of a war-torn Scotland that is partly post-nuclear, partly first-world war. It’s cleverly done, because dystopia manages the bridge between the politically realistic story of the rise of a charismatic tyrant, and the supernatural and the strange. The witches appear in vests and combats in gas masks (they later nightmarishly double up as Banquo’s killers in pig masks); the audience is assaulted by sounds of battle. The killing of Lady Macduff was a prolonged strangling that was properly shocking. This is not a polite production; this is physical.
James McAvoy was a splendid Macbeth; his trajectory from warrior to unhinged king was pitched perfectly. The absolute stillness he managed during the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ was astounding (as was the speech by Jamie Ballard’s Macduff when he is told of his family’s slaughter). So often the bodily grotesque is assigned to the witches, but here McAvoy internalises it. This Macbeth throws up in a toilet at the realisation that he is going to kill Duncan. In act four scene one Double Double Toil and Trouble is omitted as the witches cede centre stage to Macbeth, as he greedily drinks the potion and almost vomits out the three prophecies himself. I’ve seen a couple of Hamlets where he is possessed by his father’s ghost, but this was Macbeth truly inhabited by a demonic other.
The fact that director Jamie Lloyd cut the eye of newt and toe of frog stuff is interesting. Modern audiences want to be scared, but we don’t believe in the supernatural, so terror has to be found elsewhere. But for centuries, witches were the stars of the show, combining that frisson of the uncanny with absolute spectacle. Macbeth was first performed in 1606-7; two years later Ben Jonson used witches in The Masque of Queens (1609). Just as the demented energies of the antimasque became the most popular bits of the genre, so Shakespeare’s witches came to dominate theatrical performances of the Scottish play. Thomas Middleton added material from his own The Witch to Macbeth, probably in 1616, but it was in the Restoration that audiences really went mad for the weird sisters. Pepys saw Macbeth nine times between 1664 and 1669, almost certainly the Davenant rewrite in which Hecate and the three witches get bigger billing and where Macbeth turns into a theatrical and musical extravaganza. The memoirs of John Downes, book-keeper and prompter at Davenant’s company, Roscius Anglicanus, or an Historical Review of the Stage, published in 1708, recalls of a performance in 1671:
“The Tragedy of Macbeth, alter’d by Sir William Davenant; being drest in all it’s Finery, as new Cloath’s, new Scenes, Machines, as flyings for the Witches; with all the Singing and Dancing in it: THE first Compos’d by Mr, Lock, the other by Mr,Channell and Mr,Joseph Preist; it being all Excellently perform’d, being in the nature of an Opera, it Reconpenc’d double the Expence.” In this context I suspect Purcell’s decision to give the witches so much stage time in Dido and Aeneas (1689) was absolutely on trend.
Witches are all very well, but you can’t get much more grotesque than Ubu Roi. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play is best known for ripping up conventions in order to épater la bourgeoisie, but it’s hardly a subtle piece of dramatic writing. It’s a savage, adolescent, Rabelaisian take on Macbeth – the fat, filthy, power-crazed Père and Mère Ubu wreak havoc as they kill to get their hands on the kingdom, and it’s been staged as a not-very-subtle satire on power and corruption around the world.
I love Cheek By Jowl’s productions – they did a wonderful French-language version of Andromaque a couple of years ago and a sensational ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore last year, so I knew that this, like Lloyd’s Macbeth, would be a very physical piece. This French-language production begins with a lengthy framing device whereby a teenage boy trains the camera on everything that is viscous. Bodily fluids are seen close up, from the tiny piece of snot in his father’s nostril to the meat in the kitchen and the smallest smear of shit on the bathroom mat. Director Declan Donnellan channels Buñuel as the bourgeois dinner party fragments into the Jarry text. The host and hostess become Père and Mère Ubu, killing King Wenceslas and going to war with the Czar of Russia, all the while interspersed with the polite soirée. The Polish king having his brains mashed with a kitchen blender was particularly inspired bit of staging. The whole thing, you feel, is part of the teenage boy’s imagination and loathing; but in the end, the stage strewn with debris, he quietly joins the adults at dinner. Masterful.