For one so popular, Macbeth is a difficult play. It has all of those actorly superstitions attached to it, of course: bad luck, on-stage injuries, unspeakable soliloquies. It is also by repute a play about evil and darkness, a singularly merciless piece in which no character really emerges with their goodness wholly intact; it is also about perversion and terror, black magic and weakness; even the Porter, ostensibly the play’s only truly comic turn, seems most interested in nihilstic eschatology. Most of all, though, it has always felt to me as if it lacks something – context, perhaps, or at the very least a neat frame – which both accounts for its laudable brevity but also at times its odd imbalance. Macbeth’s tragedy is that he is constantly aware of the consequences and repurcussions of his actions; but this is also the source of the play’s occassional incoherence, as the main character veers from snarling barbarity to learned humanist discourse. His wife, so potent a figure in the first half, as she wilfully ignores the potential fall-out of her machinations, all but disappears in the second, reduced rapidly and with little explanation to a fitful, deranged husk; the play’s only vaguely heroic character, Macduff, arrives very late in the action – and is motivated largely by regret that he left his wife and children alone and vulnerable in dangerous Scotland.
All of which makes Macbeth a difficult play to make work properly. You can whizz through it at a lightning speed, pausing only for the famous lines, of which there are many, and the bloody battles, of which there are almost as many. This was the approach taken by the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s 2007 production, in which David Westhead huffed and gruffed his way through the play with only its inherent inertia to carry him through. Roman Polanski, too, relied in his 1971 film version on camera tricks and shock moments (a cave full of naked witches, blood pretty much everywhere). Just as famously, meanwhile, Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s 1976 RSC production stripped away almost everything except the text – sets, coherent costuming, almost all props – and forced unity on the play through mood and severe lighting. One of the principle effects of this approach was to emphasise how weird a play Macbeth really is.
Rupert Goold’s version of the play, first performed at Chichester in 2007, and broadcast in a special film version on BBC4 last Saturday (and on PBS in the US), tries to steer a middle course between these options, and does so with remarkable success. It isn’t afraid of being difficult or weird – the words themselves, as one would expect in a production featuring Patrick Stewart in the title role, are given full weight and focus, whilst the witches, here a trio of grisly hospital sisters, are allowed some moments of considerable oddness – but by the same token does not under-emphasise the play’s kineticism, with pitched battles, gunfights, and resplendent sets all playing a part. Of course, this reminds in execution of Gregory Doran’s Hamlet, similarly filmed and broadcast last Christmas. But Goold’s production moves faster, and is in some ways less reverential, than David Tennant’s turn as the Prince of Denmark.
In setting his vision of Macbeth in a Soviet-style dictatorship, complete with 1950s cars and grainy TV footage, Goold isn’t do anything too surprising with the material – in some ways, we’re reminded of Complicite’s 2004 production of Measure for Measure, in which cells and CCTV played a crucial part, in others of 1955’s Joe Macbeth, which playfully refigured the tale as a 1950s gangland parable. Even my Cambridge Schools Shakespeare edition of the text has a picture of Hitler and Stalin in it. But there’s also a shrewd and subtle mixing of registers – modern armoury against vintage uniforms, camoflauge fatigues next to timeless dinner jackets – which lets the play leak outwards. There’s lots of 1984 here, with huge posters bearing Stewart’s moustachioed face speaking of personality cults and unmedieval despotism; but the fluid quality of the dialogue, which even where liberties are taken with it feels laudably sensitive in delivery, and the rapid succession of events, are both thoroughly contemporary. Banquo is here assassinated on a train, in a scene straight out of Hitchcock; Ross, transformed from a useful authorial device to a venal-but-crucial apparatchik in a great performance by Tim Treloar, is brutally interrogated by Lennox in a fantastic reimagining of the doubled language of Act 3, scene vi. This is a production bursting with good ideas.
Only an ill-judged dance in the middle of the banquet scene, which interrupts to little effect Stewart’s compelling portrayal of a man facing the sheer horror of his bloody actions, and the better but perhaps not quite perfect sequence in which the witches’ “hubble bubble” speech is delivered as a poor sort of rap, mar this well executed vision. As all good Macbeths should, this production barrels along – but in Stewart it has found an actor, at times overly self-conscious but here most often fully submerged in the role, able to pull together the divergent aspects of his character into a man first fearful, then resolved, then broken. Stewart’s chemistry with Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth (excellent, and where she needs to be more magnetic and charismatic than Stewart) adds the necessary erotic frisson to the play’s central dynamic, allowing the audience to believe in the high hurdles the husband in particular must jump so quickly and so early on in the play.
Primarily, however, Goold takes fear as his guiding theme, intensely present of course in the text itself (another way in which this lively production remains very true to its source). Its Big Brother stylings – even as Banquo muses aloud that he fears Macbeth has played most foully for his crown, he discovers a microphone concealed within a light switch – allow the play to foreground the invasiveness of Macbeth, the way in which fate comes to meddle in intimate detail with the lives of men, but also the manner in which each of the characters is concerned to one extent or another with personal salvation. Malcolm (whom we first meet here as he executes the rebellious Thane of Cawdor) tests Macduff by (perhaps) inventing a signal lack of probity for himself; Macbeth agonises endlessly about the fate that awaits a murderer beyond death; and the witches, of course, emphasise the judgements of posterity in their prophecies. The absence of fear leads baldly to rash, inhuman actions – too much, of course, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied over. Fear – of the assassin’s knife, but also simply of falling short, of being caught out – thus permeates the play, and are here writ large on a totalitarian canvas.
The grain is roughened with the production’s depiction of Duncan, the king described by many as good and just, and thus an unworthy and much lamented victim of Macbeth’s dagger; here, he is little different than Macbeth himself will become – uniformed, warlike, and oleaginous, dispatching his henchmen to wreak swift retribution on any who dare move against him. The now traditional ambiguity of the play’s close – in which Malcolm holds aloft the severed head of a traitor and promises a glorious reign to come – adds another note of continuity, as if Macbeth isn’t really so bad, but that power is. Power, like fear, is as damaging in its fullness as in its absence; without there is mere anarchy, with an excess tyranny. In one sense, then, what Goold thus does is make this singularly imbalanced play into one about balance.
Of all the very fine performances, Michael Feast’s as Macduff is worth particular mention: the character’s reaction to Ross’s news that Lady Macduff has been murdered along with all her children can be a difficult one to play. Feast achieves it better than any I have ever seen – with a long silence, and an “O hell-kite” whispered through gritted teeth. He delivers Macbeth’s head to Malcolm in a state close to madness (again, Goold allows no one to emerge without a spot upon them); but that silence is the most humane moment in the play. An inserted pause, too, enlivens Macbeth’s final words: “And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold!,” Stewart bellows at Feast – and then, at the climax of a fight in which he gets the better of Macduff, Macbeth sees the witches a final time and whispers, with a relieved resignation, “Enough.”
Macbeth has found his balance.