Friday 22 April 2016

The Scottish Play by Kate Lord Brown

Perhaps many of our first experiences with Shakespeare are tied up with school. Watching videos of BBC productions with shaky scenery in the library on dark and rainy winter afternoons (The Tempest). Ploughing (wo)manfully through your first part with plays read aloud in the classroom, (Shylock in the Merchant of Venice). Your first experience of Shakespeare live.

The first performance I saw was Macbeth, our set O level text in 1987. I remember little of the details, the date or the theatre, even, but I do remember the impact the production made. The text which we had pored over (I still have my copy, painstaking notes crammed in the margins), leapt from the stage. The lines we had read so often we knew off by heart sparked with life:

'When shall we three meet again?'

'... not so happy yet happier ...'

And my personal favourite: 'come fate into the lists and champion me to the utterance.'

That became something of a motto for the teenage years.

'The Tragedie of Macbeth' was first published in Folio in 1623. Books, films, plays - while they don't alter, we do. Three decades on I would be quite glad if fate let up a little. The line did not jump out at me watching the latest film production of 'Macbeth' on a flight the other night. I waited for it - it may in fact have been cut. While I admire Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, have enjoyed many of their films, this version of Macbeth didn't move me. It was undeniably epic in feel - slo mo battles, authentically grubby, swirling fires, but it felt detached, with none of the genuinely disturbing, raw and sexy darkness Macbeth means to me.

There have been many other Shakespeare productions since. A Winter's Tale at the RSC in Stratford. Romeo and Juliet en plein air ('Defy your stars' came a close second as teen motto). But none has had the impact of that first Macbeth. Huge red banners soared from a jet black stage. The play opened with all the noise and raw energy of the battlefield. And Lady Macbeth had none of Cotillard's coolness. 'Lady Macbeth is painted granite', Kenneth Tynan once said. 'It is basically a man's role'. Really? Complex, certainly. Brutal, driven, ambitious - but can't women be that too? I would have loved to have seen Helen Mirren play Lady Macbeth.

Coyly referred to as 'the Scottish play' in dressing rooms up and down the land, this is my favourite of all Shakespeare's plays, because perhaps it was my first. It's believed to be bad luck, incidentally, because a real spell is apparently written into the text, and reciting it aloud releases the curse. The theme of witchcraft was topical - in 1590 Shakespeare's royal patron oversaw trials in Scotland, and wrote a treatise 'Daemonologie' in Scottish dialect, which was translated into English shortly after he took the throne. Dr Johnson said the way to gain favour with King James was to flatter his opinions about witchcraft. Perhaps 'Macbeth' was simply one great compliment from Shakespeare to his patron.

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

I once heard an actor, Gareth Thomas, say that the reason for the bad luck thing was that when a play was a flop and an audience unhappy, the company would swap to Macbeth, which was popular enough to satisfy the crowd. So mentioning it suggested that the play you were actually doing was likely to fail! It might be fun to look it up some time, but I quite like that explanation. :-) (I think Gareth Thomas may have been the Sean Bean of his time, always getting killed off!)