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Macbeth: Play of the Month and How to put on a successful production

It’s time for a new ‘Play of the Month’, and this month it’s MacbethThe sidebar to the right of this post will show you the five intense scenes we’ve chosen for small groups (2 – 7) to play, and below tha,t the different cast lists we’ve provided for 8 through 10 players (the cast lists for 8 and 10 are performable), and the original King’s Men cast list which needs 28. At the time of writing we’ve still to run our play-reading of the play yet, but we plan to publish that by  10th May.

But I don’t want to talk about our edition of the play – it’s there for you on the right-hand sidebar, and in particular, the scenes published are wonderful to perform – so try them out! What I want to talk about is something different.

Whilst I was editing the play for publication (updating punctuation; correcting spelling; implementing ‘shared lines’; etc) the beauty of the poetry really struck home. It has, perhaps, some of the most beautiful poetry in the canon, and that is one of the reasons why the play is so powerful. But it is notoriously difficult to put on a successful production. It’s ‘the Scottish play’ – bad luck even to mention it’s name, let alone play in it. Why is that? I think  I know one answer. When we watch most of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, we follow, with fascination, the tragic hero from beginning to end.  We follow Hamlet, Othello, Lear, all through their agonised journeys to disaster and death mapped out by their failings.

But this is much harder with MacbethThe first half of the play grips us in the same way as the others, but somehow the tension drops early. The peak of excitement is probably the murder of Duncan, the Porter’s scene, and the discovery of the murder. Of course there’s still high tension to come, with Banquo’s ghost and the return visit to the witches, and even the murder of Macduff’s wife.  But then the tension drops further with the ‘English scene’ with Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross, and even when we return to Scotland, the Macbeth‘s have no scenes  together, and Macbeth, though still with plenty of beautiful poetry, seems resigned to his fate.

I’ve been lucky enough to have directed Macbeth, – and in Scotland. As with any production, there’s a lot of pressure on to get the  play to work, so one wants to understand this problem of the structure of the play, and then work out what to do about it. I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare forgot his golden rule: make sure that the play will appeal to audiences for the next 400 years. This mistake shows itself in at least two ways:

  • The play was written around 1606. King James had come to the throne in 1603. The Gunpowder Plot (led by Catholics) had tried to remove him – and Parliament – in 1605, and that was as big an event in the Jacobean epoch, as 9/11 has been for our own age. There was a lot of intense discussion as to whether it was ever acceptable to murder an ‘annointed king’. There was more debate about the ‘equivocation’ used by the Plotters to avoid capture – and hence the Porter’s speech. The play talks to a Jacobean audience about this, but does it hit home to a modern audience?
  • It was also a much more religious age than our own. So watching someone decline towards damnation and hell, perhaps had more fascination then, than it does for most modern British citizens.

Whether this analysis is right or wrong, the play sags a bit in the second half, and it’s hard to keep the audience engaged throughout the play. So what to do?

Our solution was to take a leaf out of Alfred Hitchcok’s book. In Psycho, he famously allows the audience to identify with the heroine, and then kills her off in the shower scene, leaving the audience wondering who to identify with. We tried to get the audience to follow the Macbeths all the way through the murder of Duncan, Banquo, and the re-visit to the witches in Act 4 Scene 1.

Then we tried to move the audience’s loyalty to the three heroes (Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross) who were going to overthrow the by now evil monster. We had great fun with a number of ways of doing this:

  • We made the murder of Lady Macduff and her children as horrific as possible. We wanted to make the audience shocked by the brutality of it all, and I think we succeeded. The actor playing Seyton, promoted to Lady Macduff’s murderer (and all the other gruesome bits in the play), took great delight in being disgustingly horrible, turning  the audience against Macbeth.
  • We cut the ‘England’ scene heavily. All the guff about The King’s Evil went in the bin, and it became a scene where Macduff’s distress at learning of his wife and  children’s murder, became something which led Malcolm and Ross to bond with him. They became a trio of heroes determined to overthrow the monster in Scotland.
  • But our masterstroke was yet to come. Our production was a promenade performance, in the gardens of a C16 Royal Hunting Lodge (which Mary Queen of Scots certainly, and her son James VI may well, have visited). We played from Act 5 Scene 2 to the end of the play, walking down the lawn towards the Lodge (Macbeth‘s castle), with the English army and the audience walking towards a retreating Macbeth. And the masterstroke? We gave the audience pine branches to carry – they became the English army! They loved this, and it also made them opposed to Macbeth,seeking his overthrow.
'They have tied me to a stake : I cannot fly, / But, bear-like, I must fight the course.'

‘They have tied me to a stake : I cannot fly, / But, bear-like, I mustfight the course.’

Did this work? We ran the play eight nights, and each night ended with smiles of delight on the whole audience (or at least those that I saw).

My point, if you’ve followed me this far, is that a play needs more than great poetry. It needs great (well, good) drama as well.

Let’s Play!

‘The Director’,

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