January 14, 2003: Shakespeare, Macbeth

Albery, directed by Edward Hall (son of Peter Hall). With Sean Bean as Macbeth and Samantha Bond as Lady Macbeth

By and large a straightforward, action-oriented reading of the classic play, cognizant of its status as classic but clear, serviceable, and refreshingly un-plagued by the problems and bad luck that infamously dog this “Scottish” work — tiresome, but true. Even the program essay on the play, by Martin Cinna­mond, invokes the old classic comparison of Macbeth and Richard III, first articulated in the eighteenth century (see Part 3 of my book Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age) in favor of Macbeth as the more human of the two because he has a conscience, knows the enormity of his regicidal action from the first, and ends in “terrible desolation,” as does his wife.

Sean Bean and Samantha Bond together try to find the human side of their characters, which includes the erotic charge generated whenever they are in one another’s presence — though this dissipates and expires once the terrible experience of the banquet scene occurs. Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play, notwithstanding Sarah Siddons’s preeminent success in it. Siddons found what modern actors call an image, a “feminine, nay fragile” woman against which she could play but which reasserts itself and precipitates her terrible subconscious agonies, expressed in her sleepwalking, and, finally, her suicide. Samantha Bond takes a simpler route: straightforward ambition drives her, and the means to her end is to seduce and shame her husband, by turns, into going along with the “Imperial theme” that he himself first broached — as Shakespeare points it up:


Macbeth:  I dare do all that may become a man.

Who dares do more is none.

Lady:                                         What beast was it, then,

That made thee break this enterprise to me?


(I quote from memory.) We see her begin to lose her grip in the scene before the banquet scene, in which she chides Macbeth for having left the room, and there is a moment of fear and panic in her face when he says to her, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, Till thou applaud the deed.” (That “dearest chuck,” in its simultaneously affectionate and patronizing tone, is enough of a scaffolding on which to hang the physical relationship emphasized here and in other realizations, theatrical and cinematic.) Bond’s sleepwalking scene, however, is a much more extreme moment, very palpable, very well realized.

Sean Bean is a fine, highly physical actor with real presence, extremely well suited to Edward Hall’s interpretation of the play and the character. He carries the show, in fact, though the ensemble is not in any way weak or inadequate. Hall’s evident goal is a kind of transparent presentation of the play, carefully brought up to date in a generalized twentieth-century setting of wars fought with machine guns and pistols at the belt (Malcolm wears such a pistol in the battle scenes) which nevertheless does not preclude fighting with real — or real-looking — swords which create sparks when they clash. Bean is the chief agent of this goal, and he realizes it well. The weird sisters are three young, beautiful, and slinkily clothed women, and they cling to Bean erotically as they tell him the things that will ultimately lead him to his doom. One senses many women in the audience would be happy to change places with them; Bean is what used to be called (still is called? I’m “out of it” enough not to know) “a hunk.” Lucky Samantha. Lucky Sean, for that matter.

The play is mounted on a steeply raked stage rounded off at the downstage end; above it, at the back, a tall portal for major entrances, and above that — i.e., built over the portal itself — the bell tower with a plinth in the middle on which heads may be impaled. The Thane of Cawdor’s head finds a place there at the beginning of the play, and in the end Macbeth’s (though it doesn’t look at all like Sean Bean) is impaled there, somewhat shakily, by Macduff. There is the requisite smoke and noise at appropriate points (where have I seen this before? Everywhere) and the first act ends, too early, be it said, with a ceremonial coron­ation of Macbeth, who in turn crowns his lady. This is not in the play script, but what of that? Garrick did this sort of thing, as did Charles Kean. If you’re going to end the first act as early as the point when Macbeth is crowned, you have to find a bold way to do it. Better to end it, I would think, with the banquet scene, and its terrible ghost, and the dismissal of the guests in confusion, and Macbeth’s appalling comment, “We are yet but young in deed,” and Lady Macbeth’s realization that things are permanently out of control.

As it is, we are in for a disproportionately long second act. And yet Hall has trimmed a text that is already the leanest of the major tragedies to a crisp two-and-a-half hours’ playing time. To do this he has to jettison a certain amount of the verbal atmospherics that make the play so terrible, and has to do less than justice to the crucial character of Ross. You have to do things like this, it seems, to make a Jacobean tragedy succeed in the West End, for a popular audience that read the play in school and wants to see what two well-known TV and film actors can make of it (Bean has not been on stage for thirteen years; I’m not sure about Bond’s hiatus). This popular audience tonight included a gaggle of school kids, pre-teen and early teen, who were embarrassed by the home-coming that Bond’s Lady Macbeth gave Bean’s Macbeth in her bed, as they kiss passionately and Bond rolls over on top of Bean and says, sultrily “… And shalt be what thou art promised” — or perhaps it is some slightly later but equally weighty line, and who verbalized their embarrassment with assorted whistles, cheers, and gasps. Not enough to break the concentration of such seasoned actors, but enough to make a lot of us older types smile.

Finally, I’m tired of this standardized imposition of modern metaphors and modern techniques of various kinds on Shakespearean-style belligerents. I’d like to see us get back to addressing and realizing — though I have no idea how — the verbal metaphors Shakespeare used to bring his action to fruition on a non-representational stage. For instance, there is much in this play about clothing, and a good bit about nakedness. “Like a naked, newborn babe striding the blast”; “scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.” How do you strip away the theatrical accretions that have piled up over the course of the century since the time when Granville Barker departed from the historical literalism of the Charles Kean school of mise en scène and began to treat Shakespeare’s plays metaphorically? I don’t know. All I know is that I’m awfully tired of noise and smoke and stage blood. Could we give it a rest for a while?




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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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