My third Shakespeare for the RSC was MACBETH, which opened in the middle of a thunderstorm. So foul and fair I day I have not seen. It was beautifully done on the cheap in The Other Place, the old tin hut along from the main theatre. John Napier's entire set cost £200 and the costumes were a ragbag of second-hand clothes. My uniform jacket had buttons embossed with 'Birmingham Fire Service'; my long, leather coat didn't fit, nor did Banquo's so we had to wear them slung over the shoulder; Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth, wore a dyed tea-towel on her head. Somehow it was magic: and black magic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, whenever he could scrounge a ticket, holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the evil we were raising.
The play is considered unlucky, perhaps because it so rarely works. It's nevertheless popular with audiences, perhaps because it's Shakespeare's shortest. These days, there are three big problems with MACBETH and Trevor Nunn solved them all.
First: what do you do about Scotland? I've seen a very good MACBETH, with kilts, horned helmets and a lone piper at the banquet — but they were all rather off-putting. Apart from lain McDiarmid's Glaswegian Porter, our MACBETH wasn't set in Scotland; it took place in the theatre. The cast of 12 sat round in a magic circle of beer crates, on a plain wooden floor, from which they watched the scenes they weren't part of. The sound effects were openly made by the actors. My first job was to rattle the thundersheet as the doors of The Other Place were banged shut. There was no interval and no escape. The action was happening in front of your eyes — even the offstage action: Judi Dench and I bathed our hands in mock blood for everyone to see. Set in 'Scotland' the play is distanced and 'Brigadoon' hovers dangerously on the horizon. In that tin hut, you couldn't avoid a thing.
Second problem: how can modern scepticism cope with witches, cauldrons, and ghosts? Simple — we didn't have Banquo's ghost, which after all, is only there in Macbeth's imagination. The witches, on the other hand, were three real women — a psychic girl, her helping mother and a granny, who kept the book of spells. You'd smile if you met them at market but, once in the magic circle, you'd jump out of your skin. When they simply walked back to their beer crates, you'd swear that they'd vanished into air.
And third: what do you do about the last act, in which so many good Macbeth's are judged to have failed to thrill? That really is Shakespeare's fault. After giving the actor a good break during the long scene in England, he swings the action back to Macbeth, embattled in Dunsinane. The audience is rightly expecting a coiling of the spring. Instead, the tension is clumsily released, by a series of short scenes with Malcolm's advancing army. Most Macbeth's have the unfair job of winding the audience up again, once the action switches back to him. Nunn's staging put the army round the circle, with me strongly lit in its centre. We were all in each others' scenes. This simple device (it was all simple), plus some judicious cutting, made the last act work. For perhaps the first time in the history of Director's Theatre, Shakespeare had been improved on.
The effect of the production can still be felt, by viewing the television version. Trevor said: 'I want to photograph the text'. So again, there were no scenic effects, just groupings and close-ups in shadows and coloured light. The actors' familiarity with the production and with each other, meant we could concentrate on hitting our marks on the studio floor, without worry or waste of time. It only took two weeks. The claustrophobia of the stage production was exactly captured. Trevor had used a similar technique with ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA on the box. No-one else should ever be allowed to televise Shakespeare. When I remember MACBETH I feel I could write a book about it all: (a number of research students already have). There is so much I was proud of: discovering how to play a soliloquy direct into the eyes of everyone in the audience; making them laugh at Macbeth's gallows humour; working alongside Judi Dench's finest performance. But there's no need for a book. It's all on video.
|Ian McKellen's Home Page|