written by W. Shakespeare directed by Paul Stebbings
If MACBETH is not the finest play ever written, it is certainly the most performed. The play explores the corruption of power and its terrifying results, both politically and personally. But while the themes are profound and complex, the form is hugely entertaining: this is a thriller, a war story, a romance, a nightmare, a horror story and a most powerful presentation of the supernatural.
The witches ride above this play as both demons and restorers of the natural order that MACBETH and his murderous wife seek to destroy. The evil that the royal couple unleash rebounds upon themselves and, by means of the most extraordinary poetry, we, the audience, watch the collapse of naked ambition into tortured self-doubt and ultimate insanity.
TNT’s production, directed by Paul Stebbings, was the company’s first Shakespeare production. The production has been so successful that it has been constantly revived and toured worldwide since 2001 to over forty countries on four continents. This might be the most performed production of MACBETH this century. Audiences have thrilled to this production from London to Atlanta, from Beijing to Berlin, from El Salvador to Thailand and from Australia to Norway. This is a full-blooded version of the play, witch driven in its intensity. The production is not frightened of the supernatural, or compromised by modern dress. But this is not an old fashioned production either; the musical score by Paul Flush drives the play forward and creates a compelling sound texture of almost filmic quality. Forest and castle merge and melt. The witches are an almost constant presence, neither male nor female (or both) and as ruthless as Greek Furies. The acting is fast and physical. Above all the production releases the poetic intensity of Shakespeare, writing at the height of his powers. The play is not so much interpreted as elucidated, exposing its universal truths.
In our modern world where power seems divorced from morality and the irrational seems to sweep all before it, this mighty drama reminds us that we are not only corrupted but diminished by evil. For without a moral compass we shall be like MACBETH the murderous monarch:
After the recent closure of the first West End production of Macbeth for several years, a leading critic noted that the play was notoriously difficult to stage and that there had perhaps been only two successful productions in London since the 1945. Given that Macbeth is one of the most popular plays ever written, the statement may seem strange, but the play does present problems that most directors find difficult to resolve.
The first problem is that of the supernatural in general and the witches in particular. Given the psychological realism and brutal “realpolitik” of the play it is hard for an audience (and actors) who have no belief in witchcraft to accept the role of the supernatural. As a result these elements are relegated to a minor role or glossed over with embarrassment. For example, the recent RSC production has the first witches' scene played in complete darkness. Another production cut the witches altogether, and indeed the play operates since there is no problem of motivation and Malcolm’s 10,000 men can overpower Macbeth without the aid of Dunsinane Wood or MacDuff’s accident of birth.
However, it would seem to us the supernatural elements are vital to the play. The essential misreading seems to be that since Shakespeare’s age believed in witches and we do not, witchcraft must be unconvincing on the modern stage. This does a disservice to the past. There was a great debate as to whether witchcraft existed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Montaigne were sceptical, and Montaigne was probably the greatest philosophical influence on the author of Macbeth. Even King James himself, who wrote a book warning against witchcraft, could shift from the gullible to the sceptical point of view depending on his political interests. Protestant theologians often equated witchcraft with superstitious Catholicism.
So Shakespeare places a question mark over the supernatural, and in its ambiguity lies its power and contemporary relevance. How far are we responsible for our own actions? Are we driven or do we drive? The supernatural, it seems to us, must be ever present in a production of Macbeth. It is a temptation, an excuse and a symbol for all that is beyond our control. It is also “super nature”, a powerful force that enforces the laws of nature. Productions of Macbeth often fail through their attempt to solve the complexities of the play at one stroke by selecting an historical or geographical setting. But the play resists this simplification. Probably the worst professional production I ever saw was a major British theatre’s Wild West setting of the play. A purely modern setting undermines the play, since without the concept of Kingship as the future of society the play dissolves. If Macbeth is a gangster or a warlord what should he care that Banquo’s heirs will inherit and if Duncan is just another vicious boss why should his murder be a special crime?
Finally, the play itself is not perfect. It moves at a sensational pace and then grinds to a halt in Act Four. Indeed the Macbeths themselves almost disappear for large sections of the final two acts. Its possible that Shakespeare was straining to include themes and characters that would flatter King James ( who was supposed to be descended for Banquo). In terms of poetry and symbol these scenes lack nothing, but in the theatre the energy suddenly subsides and does not pick up again until Lady Macbeth sleepwalks to insanity. This raises the question as to how close the published texts are to the plays actually performed at the Globe.
We will never know the answer, but in both Henry the Fifth and Romeo and Juliet there are prologue speeches that refer to "“his the two hour traffic of our stage"”. Yet neither play can be performed in two hours without savage cuts. There exists a prompt copy for a performance of Macbeth in he 1620’s.(It is called the Padua Promptbook after its present home). Many scenes are cut, even the Porter. Its also clear that scenes were added, notably thelater witch scene was extended by Thomas Middleton, probably with the agreement of Shakespeare. All we can say from this is that the performed text was not sacred or even fixed in the playwright’s own time.
We have chosen to strip away the minor characters and cut back those scenes where the dramatic pace drops. We have also followed Shakespearian practice by doubling performers in their roles and ignoring the gender of certain performers. Our overriding aim has been to illuminate the text, to interpret for a modern audience without simplifying and generate theatrical excitement. Like Macbeth we have worried: “If we should fail?” But we have “screwed our courage to the sticking place” and taken the production to (almost) the four corners of the globe. We hope that the actors and playwright of the original Globe theatre (or their ghosts) might respect our attempt to aim for the heart of this extraordinary and ever relevant play.
Paul Stebbings, 2018
|Lady Macbeth / Witch||Kelly Griffiths|
|Witch / Porter / Lennox||Gareth Fordred|
|Witch / Malcolm / Laady Macduff||Stephanie Crome|
|Banquo / Doctor||Oliver Davis|
|MacDuff / Muderer||Will Douglas|
|other roles played by the ensemble|
|Directed by||Paul Stebbings and Christian Flint|
|Musical director||Paul Flush|
|Set Design||Martin Käser|
|Costume design||Juliane Kasprzik|
|Production assistant||Monika Verity|
|Producer||Grantly Marshall - ADGE|
|Co-Producer in CZ, SK, PL||Svatopluk Schläfer|