Short Shakespeare!


January 22

March 5, 2011

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by David H. Bell

A Look Back at Macbeth in Performance

Through its 400-year history, Macbeth has remained one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular plays. Half the length of Hamlet, it is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Macbeth maintains what some scholars have called “an intensity of tragedy,” which never lets up from the play’s dark beginning to its ambiguous conclusion.

Macbeth is also a play whose stage history has been shrouded in mystery and superstition. So strong is the belief among actors that the play carries a magic of its own that taboos still exist today against speaking the name “Macbeth” in the theater (outside the play’s text itself). Those who break the rules must perform time-honored rituals to undo the curse: leave the room, turn around three times, spit, knock on the door three times and beg to be readmitted.

The performance history of this play reveals a series of bad fortunes that could be viewed as being cursed. In its first production outside England in 1672, the Dutch actor playing Macbeth was having an affair with his Lady Macbeth—who happened to be the wife of the actor playing Duncan. One evening, the murder scene was particularly bloody, and Duncan did not return for his curtain call. Macbeth served a life sentence for his all-too-realistic murder. When Lawrence Olivier played the title role in 1937, he narrowly escaped death as a heavy weight swung from the fly loft above, crushing the chair where he had been seated until moments before.

A 1942 production directed by and starring John Gielgud had four fatalities during its run, including two of the witches and Duncan: the set was quickly repainted and used for light comedy—whose lead actor then died suddenly. When Stanislavsky, the great Russian director, mounted an elaborate production, the actor playing Macbeth forgot his lines during a dress rehearsal, and signaled to the prompter several times, but with no success. Finally, he went down to the prompt box and found the prompter dead, clutching his script. Stanislavsky cancelled the entire run immediately.

The first documented performance for which any written record still exists appears in 1611, but we know that Macbeth was performed by 1607 when references to it in other plays appeared. Scholars are fairly certain that Macbeth was written and first performed in 1606—the year that Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest on trial for conspiracy in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, used “equivocation” to protect himself in his famous trial. The first published text of Macbeth appeared in 1623 with the first Folio—17 years after it was first performed and seven years after the playwright’s death. Like many of the other texts compiled by Heminge and Condell for the first Folio, Macbeth's text was based upon the “prompt copy” used by Shakespeare and his actors in actual performance. A few passages in the Folio’s texts are attributed to contemporary playwright Thomas Middleton, who was appealing to the special interest in witchcraft among his Jacobean audience. The witch named Hecate is, according to scholars, entirely Middleton’s creation, as are the songs of the witches in 3.5 and 4.1

In England, Early Modern theater was eyed with suspicion by public authorities, who feared not only the spread of the plague among the gathered crowds, but also its influence upon an impressionable population. But to religious extremists, the theater’s pageantry was viewed as sacrilegious, an unnecessary evil that should be outlawed. It was banned in 1642 following Cromwell’s overthrow of King Charles I (the son of King James I). When theater was once again legal 18 years later after the restoration of the monarchy, Shakespeare, dead for nearly two generations, was considered old-fashioned—and ripe for adaptation. William Davenant (Shakespeare’s godson, who also claimed to be his godfather’s illegitimate son) adapted Macbeth for his Restoration audiences. The songs and dances of the witches assumed far greater prominence. Davenant’s adaptation made sense out of what Shakespeare refused to. No longer did the audience see the world from Macbeth’s point of view. Macduff became the play’s hero and Macbeth its irrefutable villain, motivated by unbridled ambition.

For nearly a century, Davenant’s adaptation held the stage, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth disappeared entirely from production. It has been suggested that the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s own text appealed more to an audience who, before the outbreak of civil war, was still wrestling with their own answers to the questions the play raises about absolute power, about violence, and about loyalty. It was not until 1744, approximately 150 years after Shakespeare first wrote Macbeth, that his play returned to the stage in the production by the famous actor and director of London’s theater, David Garrick. But Garrick, too, added lines that made Macbeth a less ambiguous character than originally drawn by Shakespeare.

The 1800s were marked by lavish Victorian productions of Shakespeare, and Macbeth was no exception. It was not until the early 1930s that a modern-dress production was staged in Birmingham, England. In 1936, Orson Welles staged such an all-black production of Macbeth—a “Voodoo” Macbeth, where the king ruled over a nineteenth-century colonial Haiti.

The most prevalent interpretation of Shakespeare’s play portrays a royal couple who act alone, motivated by their own internal psychologies, with one or the other of the partners controlling the action. Another approach to Macbeth's text in performance places the human world against a powerful supernatural sphere in which Macbeth’s Weird Sisters dwell. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as well as their counterparts in a human and corrupt society, are portrayed as insignificant players in a world controlled by Fate and evil forces.

A third interpretation of Shakespeare’s text in performance understands Macbeth’s tragedy as familial and intimate. The Macbeths are governed by their relationship with one another and with those near to them. Trevor Nunn’s celebrated 1976 production by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company starred Ian McKellan and Judi Dench as the tragic couple who lose each other along the way. First staged in the RSC’s most intimate space and on a very limited budget, the action took place within a small chalk circle, in which the couple moved in a counter-clockwise direction, signaling the play’s demonic associations.

Macbeth is said by some to be the Shakespeare play that reads most like a film script. Akira Kurosawa’s famous film, Throne of Blood, explores a fourth interpretation, with human society as the determining and overriding force. The Macbeths act—but in response to their world shaping their behavior. Kurosawa widens his scope through the use of hundreds of supernumeraries to embrace an entire political and social realm of violence and counter-violence. Society and human history are the root cause of tragedy in this sociological interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.

Shakespeare’s play has also inspired several television and film adaptations, including Ken Hughes’s gangster film, entitled Joe Macbeth (1955), in which a Tarot card-reader tells Joe that he will first become Lord of the Castle and later, King of the City. In 1991, writer-director William Reilly returned to the gangster genre in his modern-day retelling, Men of Respect. The Weird Sisters are portrayed as gypsies watching a TV cooking show featuring a recipe for lamb’s head stew, and Lady Macbeth frantically attempts with a can of bleach to make her bloodied hands guiltless. In 1997, the co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company, Michael Bogdanov (who that same year guest-directed CST’s production of Timon of Athens at the Ruth Page Theatre), directed the play with residents of a government-subsidized housing project in Birmingham; the documentary was aired on the BBC.

Macbeth has been staged by Chicago Shakespeare Theater as a full-length production only once before, in 1992. Directed by the Czechoslovakian director, Roman Polak, the production was one of the first that the young company staged. Polak conducted the entire rehearsal process with his all-Chicago cast through the use of a translator, and the production was woven together by a series of visual images. Macbeth (played by Kevin Gudahl) and Banquo, returning from the battlefield covered in filth, stripped to loin clothes to shower in a rainstorm before returning to home and civilization. It was the company’s first “water effect”—of many to follow. Polak covered his other-worldly witches in white gauze from head to toe, and cast his leading couple as young, virile, impulsive lovers seduced by their passions.

In 2005, Chicago Shakespeare Theater staged a world premiere of an adaptation based on Shakespeare’s play, entitled Kabuki Lady Macbeth. Conceived and directed by Master of Zen Arts Shozo Sato, and written by New York playwright Karen Sunde, this retelling focused on the journey of Lady Macbeth, portrayed as the force behind Macbeth’s downfall. Sato told the story through the 400-year-old Japanese theater tradition of Kabuki, which utilizes traditional Japanese dress, vocalization patterns, and the sound of the wooden “ki” to punctuate the story’s forward drive. Performed in the 200-seat theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, the production was an intimate, cross-cultural experience for both the performers and their audience.

Then in 2007, Chicago Shakespeare Theater in collaboration with one of Italy’s oldest marionette theaters, Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla e Figli, created a new production, Marionette Macbeth, combining the 300-year-old artistry of Colla e Figli with the voices of Chicago Shakespeare Theater actors. With more than 100 three-foot-tall, hand-carved puppets, the story of Macbeth was enacted by this troupe of Milanese master puppeteers. The production toured subsequently to The New Victory Theater in New York City.

– Contributed by the CST Education Department

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