I arrive in Chicago the day before the first rehearsal. I have enough time to settle into my digs, get some supper and try to get a good night’s sleep. This isn’t as easy as it sounds: I always find the night before a first day hard to sleep through, with all the expectations and worries about the show to come. It’s made harder when you’re playing the title role, especially in a play as difficult as Macbeth.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies—second maybe only to Hamlet—and I’m also pretty sure it’s one of the hardest of his plays to stage. The action moves at a breathtaking pace; it’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays and the dramatic momentum is astonishing. It has an element of the supernatural in the witches, and it’s hard to get across to a modern audience just how much force that has within the play. It’s crucial, because Macbeth is, more than any play of Shakespeare’s (or any play at all that I can think of), about hell: literally, in as much as there are supernatural elements at work, and figuratively, in that the Macbeths end up in a hell of their own making. It’s a lot like Crime and Punishment. An audience needs to be strangely compelled by Macbeth (and his Lady); the ambition that lives within them leads them to the brink of hell, and unlike most of us who resist the temptation, they plunge headlong in. Who among us, though, hasn’t been tempted? And who of us hasn’t come close to some catastrophe of our own?
Needless to say, this is all quite daunting. I feel immediate relief upon arrival at the first rehearsal. I know some of the cast: I worked with Mike Nussbaum in Hamlet, I’ve done Man and Superman and The Taming of the Shrew (among others) with Evan Buliung, and have seen some of the other actors in shows in Chicago. I also know Mark Bailey, the designer, who did the sets and costumes for Hamlet. I met Karen Aldridge, who is playing Lady Macbeth, about three weeks ago, and knew instantly that she was going to be fantastic to work with. The last time I had a first day at CST, I knew no one at all—and I was playing Hamlet. That was a little tense. This is much more like coming home.
Barbara eschews doing a first uninterrupted readthrough; we read the scenes, and then talk about them. She’s very passionate about the play and the actors are all more than capable of playing the roles they’ve been given. I’m left feeling very excited. Not without a tinge of fear; if Hamlet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a special resource needed for the great Shakespearian tragic roles—they use up every ounce of energy, physical, emotional, and mental, that the actor can muster. This will hardly be a picnic. It is, however, the reason actors get up in the morning. I feel very lucky.
We continue, in earnest, tomorrow.
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