You Make Me Strange! & Other Macbethery

Macbeth at the banquet scene,
said to Lady Macbeth:
"You have made me strange!"

I've been immensely grateful to have directed quite a lot of Shakespeare this year (for those of you keeping score, we're coming up to number three of the four back to back directing Shakespeare plays this year: As You Like It, The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream).


Howsomever, Macbeth is really one of the Big Five, when one's considering Shakespeare tragedies.  (I'd say it's Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Othello and Lear.  Put on any one of those, and folks will come...and criticize.) 

The most intimidating of his plays, for my money though, is still Hamlet.  To quote Tolkein: one does not simply walk into Elsinore.  But right behind Hamlet is definitely the Scottish Play.  And one does not simply walk into Dunsinane, either!

When I first started getting my thoughts together on Macbeth, one of the things that struck me was that this was Such A Ridiculously Male Play.  The testosterone of it daunted me, actually.  It was just so full of...war...and more war and more war...and a bunch of grim faced guys talking about war and making war and going into war and coming out of war and...

I didn't really feel that I had a way in.

(For the record, I don't mind male plays, and I'd hate to be called feminist, just I don't get excited about the prospect of mindlessly hacking away.  If I'm going to kill someone on stage, I want it to hurt me emotionally, too.)

The script, too, was weird.  Oh, the story is straight-forward enough:
  • Boy gets prophecy
  • Boy pursues prophecy
  • Boy gets killed by prophecy

By "weird" what I mean is that there are a ton of characters who either:

A) Have no name and pop up for one scene to say some direful things and then are never seen again (Old Man, A Lord, etc.) or;

B) Have a name but you've never heard it before and they do stuff at the end and die so you could really care less but you're supposed to care at all (Mentieth, the Siwards) or;

C) Have a name, and you even hear it, but you can't seem to quite register Who The Hell They Are (Lennox, Ross, Angus) or;

D) Have a name, and you know it, and then they just disappear for forever...even though they're really important to the plot (Malcolm, Donalbain, Fleance) or;

E) You know who they are (the Macbeths).

Even when things go very badly for the Macbeths,
they're still in it together!
Another thing that troubled me was that, tonally, the show can become one long string of horror, like a Greek drama, that loses its power because of repetition.  I'm always about finding grace in any tragedy - and Shakespeare is typically a willing partner in such ventures - but from watching other productions of Macbeth, I couldn't find it initially.

What I can do is human drama.  What I can do is interior war.  What I can do is come to a play with a female perspective which, especially when working with a male playwright, can help compliment his worldview.

So I focused in on that line of Lady Macbeth's, that she had "given suck, and know what 'tis to love the babe that nursed me," and that she would, "while it was smiling up at me, have dashed the brains out."  It's not a statement you make lightly.  And yet, it never seems to be addressed at all in all these manly manly productions.

I began looking at the death of children and the rape of innocence.

If Lady Macbeth did indeed kill her child...wouldn't that have upset their marriage, which seems evident from the start?  And if she can get Macbeth to join her in killing the father (Duncan in our case) wouldn't that "alleviate" - even absolve - or at least spread around the guilt?  And if the guilt is spread around, then they don't have to be guilty, right?

But death begets death.  And we've found beautiful moments, not of Macbeth pushing away Lady Macbeth, but attempting to make her innocent again ("be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck") by taking on all the collateral deaths (Banquo/Fleance, the Macduffs, etc.) without her knowledge.

Our teachers have always said that Macbeth is an example of a tragic hero - which always seemed absurd to me.  Macbeth seems to be just a monster.  It doesn't seem to take much to get him to kill; there's nothing heroic about him!  But...

But what if there were?  What if, in fact, Macbeth does have to be talked into the first murder, and the second, and the third, and then it gets easier, and so on and so on.  Looking at the text, it's all there - the curses and reverses, the time for a million decisions and revisions, as T. S. Eliot says in his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Lady Macbeth in her mad scene
Goes terribly sane, instead
"There's a knocking at the gate"
I have to thank, as always, my brilliant cast - particularly my Lord and Lady Macbeth who go throughout the play together.  That, too, was something important to me.  So often, the story begins strongly with them and then the pairing just peters off.  In our production, whether they're working in concert or against one another, there is a constant association.

I've been amazed, too, and how the entire cast has help to keep focus on the deaths (or attempted deaths) of children.  It can get pretty brutal - especially the massacre of the Macduffs - but all the actors are fantastic at keeping me on track regarding their characters' reactions to each death.  I love how our Donalbain has even added a grace note to the deaths of children with a new child...and how our two child actors (Elizabeth Macduff, and Fleance) are just phenomenal!

I love how the lords, who could just blend into one another, individualize themselves.  I love how the witches (played by Duncan, Ross and Donalbain) switch in and out of their characters.  I love how the Macduff family tugs at my heartstrings...and how ambiguous the royal family is...and how it hurts to see Macbeth try to kill Banquo and his son.

Likewise, our Banquo is no avenging ghost, but he offers something that Macbeth (by the end) fears even more: grace.  Mercy and grace.  I keep thinking of that song, "Aldonza" from Man of LaMancha:

You have shown me the sky,
But what good is the sky
To a creature who'll never do better than crawl
Of all the cruel bastards
Who've badgered and battered me
You are the cruelest of all

Can't you see what your gentle
Insanities do to me
Drive me from anger
And give me despair?
Blows and abuse
I can take and give back again...
Gentleness I cannot bear.

Macbeth is, at its heart, a cautionary tale.  Like the Bearenstein Bears: This Is Something You Should Not Do.  But cautionary tales are only helpful if they provide a way out.  Otherwise, you leave the audience in confusion and despair and hopelessness.  Although I'm all for rightfully unsettling an audience, I feel that it's important to provide an alternative, a solution, an exit from No Exit as it were.

It's important that in the midst of hopelessness is a glimmer of hope.  I guess I'm just with Samwise Gamgee on this one.  So, although we're going dark dark dark in some places - or rather, not dark, not GRIMDARK, not dark for no purpose - but rather although we go agonizingly real in the play, I think we're still holding on to the thought that there's good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.


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