Macbeth: a national favourite
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
In many ways Macbeth is the most popular of Shakespeare’s Big Four tragedies. Maybe of all his plays. Hardest to get tickets for at the RSC this year. I ended up having to wait for the transfer from Stratford to the Barbican. As soon as the gates were open, I was there with my recently acquired subscriber privileges. 5 seats in row K of the stalls secured for a happy post-Christmas family treat.
They're looking glum but I'm looking forward to an electric performance
It’s a relatively easy story to follow, if not to present creatively. A play that so many of us remember fondly from school. As such it gives us a nice feeling of being learned. Of thinking we know Shakespeare. A bit of him at least. And so, ever eager to be challenged, I’m thrilled to hear that this production goes deep and plays heavily on the sombre psychology of the Macbeths. I’m up for this. Pantomimes are fine for those misbehaving in Westminster. Give me real drama in the City of London any day.
Peering into both cauldron and mind, let’s explore exactly why Macbeth is so popular:
1. The Witches. Everyone loves a tale of magic.
“Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog…”
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Woe, woe and thrice woe. Hang on, I’m starting to get my Shakespeare mixed up with Frankie Howerd. Apologies if I'm bursting anyone's bubble here, but the line the Bard actually wrote was this:
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” (Act IV, scene 1).
The play is traditionally fun as well as spooky. But I am troubled; I cannot see any witches in the RSC cast list. This takes me back to school for a moment. My English teacher brother-in-law once related this surprising reaction to the play, delivered by a pupil in pure Bristolian: “Wot witches?”
Not the witches the RSC have in mind
2. Christopher Eccleston. Still fondly remembered by many as the man who brought back Dr. Who and made the Time Lord credible and relevant again across the generations and dimensions. And now we get to see him treading the boards in another powerful but strange role.
Reviving a time and space classic:
Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor) with Billie Piper (Rose Tyler)
3. This is a play about a man who is offered more. He wants it, gets it. Does whatever it takes and gives up whatever it costs to secure a triumphant future, only to discover that he has lost his soul. His body is quick to follow. How many of us can relate to this scenario?
4. The play also offers something for the feminists. Just a little, mind. Three powerful female characters who set the agenda and determine the outcome right from the start, though we don’t know so at that point. A weak man who can’t get anything right. A strong woman who forces the point. Everything’s fine. But then, she can’t handle it either and throws herself over the ramparts. Not so strong after all.
The man about the castle, taking it easy
(photo: Richard Davenport, RSC)
5. The riddles.
“None of woman born shall harm Macbeth”.
Sounds safe. But then, Achilles thought he couldn't be harmed, too. Macbeth dies at the hands of McDuff, the explanation being:
“McDuff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”. (Act V, scene 8).
I defy you to do this line in anything other than a broad Scottish accent. Go on. Be William Wallace. Be Private Fraser from Dad’s army. Be Andy Murray!
6. The Scottish theme. First there was the failed independence vote in 2015. Then, Brexit was opted for by the British people, but not by the Scottish. It's quite straightforward. They belong with us and we both belong in Europe. In the world of the Arts, we cannot get enough of the Scottish play right now. And let’s recall that classic Catherine Tate scene where the wayward schoolgirl asked her teacher David Tennant if his Shakespeare lesson counted as double English or double Scottish. Note the Dr. Who connection again. And yes, we all ain’t bothered! But we are though.
Bravehearts, every one
"Can I aks you a question?"
(Catherine Tate as Lauren, speaking neither English nor Scottish. David Tennant is unusually lost for words)
7. The ghost of Banquo. See point 1. Everyone loves the supernatural, and now we have a ghost story on our hands. Chilling. Spine tingling. Full of suspense. Banquo vies with Hamlet’s father as the most famous ghost in English drama. Add to this an imaginary dagger floating in the air in front of Macbeth’s eyes. And all that blood, which can be real or imaginary but either way takes forever to be washed away from the hands and from the memory.
“Out damned spot!”
She’s not talking to her dog.
Who's up for a game of Cluedo?
8. The concept of just desserts. I don't mean refreshments at the interval here, though the RSC does a nice line in Judes ice cream. Go for the ginger. No, I’m referring to how Macbeth gets his come-uppance, and how Lady Macbeth gets her come-downance. Ouch! They deserve it for their greed and for challenging the divine order. Regicide. And for killing many others, including a best friend and a batch of little MacDuffs. There are no second chances in this play.
9.The murder and the weapons. And this line:
“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”
Dodgy grammar from the Bard? Possibly. We like to trip him up over his own words. We love classic quotes. And everyone loves a murder. Not quite a murder mystery, but there are plenty of dark forces at work in the play of which we are not fully aware.
An incisive grasp of something that's not really there
10. Finally, there’s the Madness and the Sadness. Another favourite Shakespearean theme. All the great tragic heroes lose their mind at some point. Macbeth loses his repeatedly, in the death tent, in the banquet hall and on the battlefield. Lady Macbeth literally goes over the edge after losing her marbles.
All of this makes the RSC version of the Don’t say the name play an exciting and intriguing prospect. The Scottish Play with a Doctor from Gallifrey, en route to the throne via Glamis and Cawdor. Going to dark places. I am so looking forward to the witches and the ghosts, and to being disturbed out of my wits, and going deeper into my own soul. Dramatically speaking.
One last quote, a reprise:
“For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble”
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
See the Connected Cultures review of the RSC's Macbeth at the Barbican