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Playreading Report: Macbeth, Edinburgh, October 1st ’17

At last, the play-reading season has started again! After a summer spent playing cricket or otherwise enjoying the sunshine, nine of us gathered to play-read Macbeth, on Sunday 1st October. This is one day (or one month) later than we promised, having said we’d play-read Macbeth in September. Unplanned holidays with family and on the Isle of Barra caused the delay.

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Preparation for the play-reading:

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My partner and I prepared for the Macbeth play-reading the way we prepare for them all. We try to read the play together out loud. It gets the lips and tongue used to getting round the words again, and sometimes reveals new insights about the play. Then we watch a production of the play after which we feel ready for the play-reading.

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With Macbethwe both thought the language was particularly difficult to get one’s tongue and brain round. Perhaps it was the summer off, or maybe the accession of James I in 1603 had given rise to new fashions in speaking, and the playwright had adopted some of them.

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We both thought that the play was not as good as we had remembered, but  our selected production, the Trevor Nunn film with Ian McKellan as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth  reminded us of some of the many things about the play which make it great:

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The production is a filmed version of a stage production. The colour has been minimised so the play appears to be in black and white: a white priest-like Duncan and a black Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Malcolm, too, is mostly in white. Church music is played at the start, and throughout the production, reminding us how much the play is built on a ground of Christian concepts: Good and Evil;  Temptation and the fall from grace; the Devil and Hell. For Jacobean audiences this would all be part of their mainstream culture, but for modern audiences in these  more decadent and cynical times, it can cause difficulties.

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McKellan and Dench play the leading roles nigh-on perfectly, showing how their two characters, each with their specific weaknesses, egg each other on to disaster, and destroy themselves in their own characteristic ways. The loving couple slowly become distanced from each other so that Lady Macbeth barely knows what’s going on by the time of the banquet with Banquo’s ghost, until their final separation: ‘She should have died hereafter….’

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The Play Reading:

The group had gathered; we caught up with each other’s news from the summer and then we settled down to play read. We were all a little rusty and it took a scene or two for most speakers to get the feel of the language – definitely a little different from the Elizabethan plays.

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By Act Two, we were all in the swing of things and the reading was going well.

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Act and Scene markings can be quite misleading. They are useful milestones on the road from the beginning of the play to the end, but they can often confuse the reader into thinking that they have something to do with a scene. Most of these Act / Scene markings are not in the First Folio but have been added later so do not even have Early Modern English authority to lay claim to.

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For me Act Two Scene One; Act Two Scene Two; and Act Two Scene Three is one long scene rather than three different scenes. In the first scene, it’s after midnight and Banquo is feeling nervous and meets Macbeth; he leaves for bed and Macbeth prepares himself for murder. In the next scene, in the same courtyard, Lady Macbeth enters and nervously waits for husband to return from the murder; they talk excitedly together and some of the recurring themes are introduced; hands which will never be clean; sleep which has been lost forever; the knocking on the door encourages them to bed, and; in the next scene, raises the porter from his bed to let in the early risers to discover the murder; raise the sleeping household; and face the consequences of Duncan’s murder.

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You can think of these as three separate scenes, but for me they flow one into the other. Of course, the realist may complain that more time has passed between Banquo’s meeting with Macbeth, and the arrivals of Macduff and Lenox to arise Duncan, but Shakespeare so often condenses time that to me, it’s better to think of it as one long scene, and what a scene it is!

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(It’s worth pointing out that frequently what we mark as one scene may be more than one. One example must suffice. In Romeo and Juliet, in Act Four Scene Five, there’s much excitement when Juliet’s family and sundry discover Juliet ‘dead’. Eventually, they all leave, leaving the nurse to welcome three musicians, and there’s a short transition piece where the Nurse introduces the Musians to Peter, before she too departs. We’re now in a new scene (in the same place) but with a completely different feel, where Peter deals with three musicians who are slightly despondent to discover that they’ve losta commission for a gig. So one scene is really two).

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But back to Macbeth. This scene (A2S1; A2S2; A2S3) is the highlight of the whole play. It depends on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth playing well together (which we had) and a few, very important, sound effects. The bell, which summons Duncan to heaven or to hell; and raises the alarum once the murder is discovered; and the knocking of the gate. I tend to be responsible for the sound effects in the play-readings and I thought our bell worked well – a brass bowl, hit on the outside, giving a satisfying ringing tone. The knocking was not so successful. Ideally you hope for a castle door being beaten heavily and slowly. We didn’t have one to hand, but I thought a piano might do as well. I tried knocking on the side, and on the front, but it didn’t have the depth required, and the strings beginning to vibrate was distracting, so I switched to a  mahogany table of my mother’s – much more satisfactory!

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Perhaps the one scene which should compete with the murder of Duncan scene for excitement is the banquet with Banquo’s ghost. When I directed the play, we had Banquo physically on stage, at the table, in a blood-stained shirt. This approach always has the risk of looking a little silly and generating amusement in the audience, particularly when the physical ghost has to disappear.

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The play-reading suffered the opposite problem. There was no ghost on stage and so it became a little difficult to follow what Macbeth is getting upset about.

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In theory the idea of a murdered character appearing at, and disturbing a banquet sounds as exciting as the murder of Duncan scene, but it is far harder to pull off. In our reading, we did pretty well, but it was a long way behind the Act Two scene(s).

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Shortly after Banquo’s banquet, we have Act Three Scene Six – a wonderful test of the ability to express irony – particularly difficult when you’re at an unrehearsed play-reading (because we cast by lots). Lenox’s speeches are filled with irony but,  in a cold reading, it’s not necessarily easy to spot that, or to remember how to play irony. I’m afraid we didn’t pull that off.

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If you’re smiling a slightly superior smile, dear reader, can I suggest you try the scene yourself at:

Let’s Play: Macbeth A3S6 (you’ll need two of you to play the scene. You can take turns at Lenox until you’ve got it ironic enough).

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After the Interval, it’s straight into the witches’ big scene. These scenes are, of course, one of the highlights of the play, provided the audience can  believe in their malevolent force. Luckily, we had three witches who came together in style and content and their scenes went more than well.

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I was playing Malcolm. The scene in England (Act Four, Scene Three) was drawing near and I was dreading it.  I suppose the play has to have a character to be the antithesis of the evil Macbeth, and Malcolm plays that role. Jacobean times, I’m sure, had their share of cynics and Machiavellian politicians, but with a strong religious faith, the age seems to have been more willing to accept that there could be people of goodwill, and so a Malcolm is more believable to them.

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But today, Malcolm is very difficult to make credible. His slandering of himself, even if to protect himself from Macbeth and his henchmen seems unlikely. And later, when I thought I was making rather a good job of listing the Kingly graces that Malcolm claimed not to have (“Justice, Verity, Temp’rance, Stableness, Bounty, Perseverance…”) I swear I heard scoffing, suppressed laughs, from some of the other players. Well, you can’t win them all.

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And now we’re into Act Five, and Lady Macbeth‘s sleepwalking scene (excellent) and on to Macbeth‘s death at the hands of Macduff. This reminded of Don Giovanni’s final aria as he too is carried of to Hell. And  perhaps that is the problem with Macbeth.

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The first half of the play is magnificent, and we are carried away by the two conspirators; successful attempt to take over the kingship.But the second half is more difficult. If you live in a community with a strong religious faith you can still watch with fascination the descent into hell. But in less religious societies, it’s a play of two halves and the second half is difficult.  McKellan and Dench played that half as the disintegration of their relationship and then their own characters as a consequence of the usurpation. But it needs McKellan and Dench to pull that off. My own approach, when directing the play, was to turn the second half into “The Tyrant’s Overthrow”, with a heroic trio (Macduff, Ross, and Malcolm) bonded by Macduff’s loss of wife and family in a heavily-cut England scene, who ride North to overthrow Macbeth. The trick is to turn the audience against Macbeth in the second half, which is not too difficult if the murder of Macduff’s wife and children is made horrific enough.

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Anyway, we’re play-reading again, and what a pleasure it is! In a month’s time,  we’ll be play-reading As You Like ItThe play is already published on our web-site , and I’ll probably tweak the index to add some more richness to our edition of the play, but you can start playing it now. It’s our new ‘Play of the Month’. We hope some of you will join us in play-reading As You Like Itand discover some of the delights of play-reading Shakespeare.

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If you’ve found this play-reading report interesting or even useful, we’ve got a page devoted to play-reading reports, both ours and from other groups. You’ll find it at:

Playreading Reports Page:

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Let’s play!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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If you are using, or thinking of using, Players-Shakespeare.com’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays for production rehearsals or play-reading, why don’t you ask to become a member of our Support for Playreading & Productions Closed FB group?

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If you want to know how our Shakespeare edition is developing,  ‘like’ our Facebook page, and you’ll get more detailed updates on Facebook on what’s happening.

 

2 Responses to "Playreading Report: Macbeth, Edinburgh, October 1st ’17"

  • Rivkah Moore
    October 3, 2017 - 2:53 pm Reply

    What advice would you give to a group (as yet still only a potential) of first time, non theatre professionals (but Shakespeare lovers) forming a group?
    How many is a good number and how often do you meet?
    I’d love to be in your group! (I live in Canada)

    • Richard Forsyth
      October 4, 2017 - 11:28 am Reply

      Rivkah,
      There’s a lot of help on the web-site which tells you how to start a Shakespeare play-reading group
      The first thing to say is do it!!! You’ll have great fun if you love Shakespeare.
      Two good starting places are:
      How we help you playread Shakespeare:
      https://players-shakespeare.com/how-we-help-you-playread-shakespeare/
      and
      Countdown to play-reading:
      https://players-shakespeare.com/category/countdown-to-playreading/

      A good starting group size is around 8 – 10 players (readers).
      We play-read once a month from September through May.

      Currently, I’d recommend you use MS-Windows laptops or Apple iPads / iMacs to access the plays online. Android and Amazon Fire tablets do work but they are a bit flaky.

      Make sure you’ve got a good wi-fi connection to the interent so that everyone gets a reasonable speed.

      Ask to join our ‘Support for Playreading & Production’ FB page, by going to it:
      https://www.facebook.com/groups/731768703694970/
      and asking to join.

      You need one person who is willing to organise the group.

      If you need more help, post a question on the Support for Playreading and Production FB page.

      Good luck, and welcome to the growing number of Shakespeare play-reading groups.

      Best wishes,

      Richard Forsyth

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