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Playreading Report: Macbeth, Edinburgh, 8th May

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We held our last play-reading of this season (September – April)  last Sunday,  reading  Macbeth, and out of that comes this play-reading report.

Preparing the text of Macbeth for our play-reading was a real struggle. The main difficulty was the extensive use of Shared lines, which has a knock-on effect on the structure of the other lines in a speech. There were considerable differences between the structure of these lines in our OUP-derived First Folio edition, and the Kenneth Muir-edited Arden which we used as a general reference.

Sometimes Arden seemed best, and sometimes the OUP First Folio version, and sometimes both seemed not quite right, and I came up with my own version. What seems  clear is that ‘shared lines’ in Macbeth are more important than they are in most of the other plays, and the verse lines are also more irregular, giving one more opportunity to structure speeches as you like (it), or, as some might say, completely foul things up. Anyway we’ve done our best and the published MFFEV5 version is, I hope, good enough to be used, though, of course, there’s still room for improvement. The amount of editing and revision that’s gone into the play can be seen by the Version No. Usually, published play are version 5.01 – 5.03. With Macbeth, the published version is 5.06!

Once we have an edited play, my partner and I read the play together, alternating speeches. I know the play really quite well, having studied it at school, having directed it, and having seen quite a few versions so I thought this would be simple. It wasn’t. The English  is peculiarly contorted. That adds to the effectiveness of the play, but it’s quite difficult to get your brain and tongue to co-ordinate to get the words out well – one of the reasons it’s good to read the play out loud. It makes you appreciate more, what’s going on in the verse (and prose). So our reading out loud was a bit of a struggle.

Then came the deligtht of watching what I consider to be the best version of Macbeth I’ve seen – the Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Trevor Nunn version for the RSC, available on DVD. With such a trilogy of names from the RSC, how could it fail! And it is superb. I plan to write a review of this production for our ‘Great Shows to watch at home’ set of reviews – watch this space. The image at the top of this article is taken from that production, from A3S4, where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, disturbing Lady Macbeth – and the guests – more than somewhat.

So with all this preparation, how did the play-reading go?

Well, this is Macbeth, or the Scottish play, so of course we had to have a problem or two. First of all, we had a couple of false starts:

For the first time ever, two of the play-readers (myself and my partner) chose the same part to read, so we had two Third Witches, and had to re-start with the players corrected. (For those of you thinking of running a play-reading with our version – see the sidebar to the right of this article – I would like to reassure you all that it’s really quite difficult to choose the wrong parts.)

We re-started and promptly found a wrong cue for ‘ALL’, again in A1S1. This was definitely an editing problem, and yes, I admit responsibility. (It has been corrected.) One of the great things about our play-readings from your point-of-view is that the script has been road-tested (and corrected) before it gets to you.

We re-started for the third time, and thankfully had no more issues with the text.

As I said at the beginning, this is the last play-reading of this season, and it’s the end of our third season of reading plays together – round about 8 plays a year. We’re getting to know each other quite well, and the atmosphere at a play-reading is deepening.

We allocate parts to read by lot, and in earlier times, there was quite a bit of competition – and trading – for people to play the parts they wanted, or at least a  ‘large part’. The parts get smaller as the Player No. goes up. There were 8 of us playing and I drew Player No 8, (Macduff, etc) which gave me plenty of time to listen, and to watch. What I found particularly interesting, was that most of the players were listening to the play unfold with a quiet intensity which seemed to increase their enjoyment of the play. The mix of participating as a player and listening to the play is quite unique. Only Macbeth (played by a woman) and Lady Macbeth (played by a man) – our play-readings are gender-blind – seemed so busy with their parts that they couldn’t enjoy the reading quite so much.

Of course, having just watched Ian McKellen and Judi Dench giving ‘their all’ to the parts, and having just seen the Merely Theatre productions of ‘The Dream’ and ‘Henry V” with their superb delivery of their lines (see Our review of their shows), I have to confess to being a little less impressed with our own delivery. Nevertheless,  the quality of the afternoon’s performance – both as players and audience – made this a more than acceptable afternoon.

One of our readers made the most interesting observation of the day – that  there is no real sub-plot in Macbeth.  This is definitely curious. If we restrict ourselves to the other great tragedies: King Lear has the sub-plots of Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester, and the love competition between Edmund, Regan, and Goneril; Othello has the sub-plot of Iago’s  treatment of Roderigo; and Hamlet has the sub-plot of Polonius and his family – admittedly this is closely integrated with Hamlet’s story. But what does Macbeth have? Well, there’s the Porter’s scene; and the Old Man with Ross; and the scene in the English court, but really nothing significant. Mind you, the play is a play of two halves, as our football commentators like to say. The first half is about the Macbeths murder of Duncan and their subsequent disintegration; the second about the overthrow of Macbeth by our trilogy of heroes (Malcolm, MacDuff, and Ross) . Still it is curious that, amongst all the great tragedies, and perhaps all the plays (?)  Macbeth is the only one with no real sub-plot – the subject for someone’s PhD, except it has probably already been written.

We plan to start our play-readings again in the autumn – September or October. We have more plays to explore, including The Comedy of Errors; Anthony and Cleopatra, & The Merry Wives of Windsor. In addition, we’ll be re-visitng some plays we’ve  already read – we’re beginning to run out of new plays to read.

Let’s Play!

‘The Director’,

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