Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes – John Wolfson Lecture

John Wolfson, Honorary Curator of Rare Books at Shakespeare’s Globe, gives an annual lecture on some aspect of Shakespeare’s work. This year, his lecture, which took place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was entitled Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes.

Macbeth is unusually short for a Shakespeare tragedy, suggesting that some scenes have been lost. The play also contains scenes known to have been added by another hand. The missing scenes and the added scenes are the subject of John Wolfson’s talk this year.

I was vaguely aware that Macbeth was the shortest Shakespearean tragedy, but I honestly had no idea that some of its scenes were supposed to be missing and I certainly didn’t know that others had been added. Naturally it’s harder to tell where the missing scenes are than the added scenes, though Shakespeare scholars have made attempts to identify these over the years. Wolfson’s talk was fascinating, illuminated by actors from his forthcoming play The Inn at Lydda who enlivened proceedings by declaiming several lines of dialogue.

It is thought that Thomas Middleton was particularly culpable when it came to slotting in scenes: there was a witch called Hecate in his play The Witch so it is believed that he added the Hecate scene in Macbeth, as well as the songs. David Garrick, the famous seventeenth-century actor, added a death speech to the end of the play but naturally enough, this is not performed now. I was slightly disappointed that there was no reference to my own favourite Macbeth anecdote: the famously dreadful poet William McGonagall tried his hand at acting, and on one occasion when playing Macbeth he simply refused to die.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of the talk involved the structure of the play and how it reflects the missing scenes. Acts 1 to 3 have a strong structure with Macbeth as the main character, but Act 4 has a scene between Macduff and Malcolm, in which Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty, which makes no sense in the context of what has come before. It’s possible that Shakespeare did originally include this plot thread and the scenes have gone missing. We are also meant to be aware that Macbeth has been king for many years between the banquet scene and the start of Act 4 but we don’t really get a sense of this.

Macbeth is a powerful but flawed play and this talk really helped me appreciate some of the difficulties surrounding its structure and performance. I’m looking forward to both seeing and reading the play again to explore this further.

Royal Shakespeare Company: After Dark Tour

The RSC offer many different tours of their buildings, and last time I was in Stratford I took the opportunity to take their After Dark Tour. This takes place after the shows have finished and the theatre has emptied. Waiting for the guide by the cloakroom when everyone else has left is rather spooky in itself, and the tour as a whole was incredibly creepy.

We were taken in and out of the backstage areas, up to the restaurant and the bars, and even into both of the auditoria, with no light other than our guide’s torch. She regaled us with fascinating stories of grey ladies and angry actors, ghostly front of house staff (including the Perfumed Lady) and even a supposed sighting of the original theatre’s architect.

The RSC building has an incredible amount of history, with the first theatre being built in the late nineteenth century and the second being constructed in the thirties. Refurbishment in 2010 preserved many of the original theatre’s features, so it’s not hard to imagine spooky happenings.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this tour is absolutely fascinating and I would definitely recommend it, even if you’ve already done the RSC backstage tour.

The Go-Between

The Go-Between, a new musical adapted and written by David Wood and Richard Taylor, sparked my interest for being based on the 1953 book of the same name by L.P. Hartley, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. However, it was the choice of Michael Crawford in the main role that swayed me. Famed for originating the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, he plays the main character’s older self, acting as narrator and is a constant presence on stage as he looks back into his past.

The story concerns a young boy, Leo Colston, who goes to stay with his richer friend Marcus one summer at the beginning of the twentieth century and becomes caught up in the secret romance blooming between Marcus’ older sister Marian and a local farmer, Ted Burgess. While the young Leo doesn’t always fully understand what is going on, the older Leo knows only too well. Crawford is superb in the role, conveying emotion wonderfully, and while he doesn’t have the vocal power that he used to, he still has a wonderful voice and his frailer tones fit the character.

Directed by Roger Haines, the show relies heavily on the two young boys who play Leo and Marcus, and at the performance I saw, Luka Green and Samuel Menhinick were both superb, particularly Samuel whose character of Marcus was incredibly annoying but very well portrayed. Among the adults, Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward were very good as Marian and Ted, while Issy Van Randwyck managed to be both charming and ultimately threatening as Marcus and Marian’s mother.

The simple set was evocative, with moving chairs and a piano, beautifully played by Nigel Lilley, the only instrument featured in the score. The music fit the piece beautifully, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable except for the song ‘Butterfly’.

This isn’t your average musical: it’s soft, evocative and subtle, not big and brash and loud like so many of the West End’s other offerings. Yet it’s well worth seeing, moving and quietly devastating.

Richard III

The Almeida’s Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes, was one of this year’s hot tickets, worth braving the theatre’s less-than-brilliant website to be sure of grabbing a ticket. Was it worth it? Well, yes, I thought. Fiennes gives a strong performance as a mad, manic king, commanding the stage and sending shivers down the spine of any audience member lucky – or unlucky – enough to catch his eye. His Richard is someone who revels in his evil, taking revenge for the way in which he has been treated thanks to his hunched back (Fiennes’ back must be agony, surely, by the end of the performance, judging by the way he holds it crooked all evening). As his murderous tally grows larger, skulls light up one by one at the back of the auditorium (the Almeida’s brick wall), eventually forming the constellation of the Boar (which was Richard’s emblem).

Rupert Goold’s production begins with the recent excavation of Richard’s body in a Leicester car park, before the archaeologists and their spotlights back away to reveal the living king, a strong conceit spoiled by the fact that the cast wear modern suits and mobile phones. Not that this is a problem in itself, but the modern costume and the play’s beginning seemed to belong in two different productions. Still, it’s particularly amusing to watch Lord Hastings (Globe regular James Garnon) grow increasingly panicked at the content of the texts he receives on his smartphone.

Among the rest of the strong supporting cast, Joanna Vanderham does a good job as Richard’s unlucky queen Anne, and Vanessa Redgrave impresses as the older Queen Margaret in a quiet but impressionable portrayal of someone who has lost everything.

A memorable production, this is another example of what the Almeida does well: reinvigorated classics that always offer something new.

Hamlet

The RSC have been working their way through the Shakespeare canon, and now in the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death it’s the turn of Hamlet. I’ve seen countless productions of Hamlet over the years but something keeps drawing me back, the play itself is pretty impressive but every production has had something different to offer.

This one, directed by Simon Godwin (who also directed the rather excellent Two Gentlemen of Verona a few years ago), is set in a country reminiscent of a modern African nation, with atmospheric music composed by Sola Akingbola and bright costumes and sets designed by Paul Wills. We see Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) graduating from Wittenberg University before the play begins: the emphasis in this production is on Hamlet as a young man fundamentally changed by the experiences he has had away from home, and how he tries to make sense of the culture and recent events back home. For me, the implication was of a Hamlet pretending to go mad in an attempt to catch out his uncle, but his feigned madness seemed to become real as he struggled to cope with what was going on.

I was impressed with Essiedu’s performance. I’m so used to seeing famous actors as Hamlet that I found it quite refreshing to see someone who I personally wasn’t familiar with on stage. I thought he was excellent, with strong stage presence and a freshness about his speech, especially in his “To be or not to be”, which can often sound stale.
Cyril Nri lent Polonius the familiar mix of pomposity and dignity: the relationship between him and his children Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) and Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) was genuine and touching.

Clarence Smith was good as Claudius but I was particularly struck by Tanya Moodie as Gertrude. There were some interesting choices made relating to her character: during the scene in which Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom, it is suggested that she can see the ghost of Old Hamlet too, and when she comes to tell us of Ophelia’s drowning, she is wet and muddy, suggesting she waded in after her.

Special mention must go to James Cooney who played Horatio owing to the indisposition of Hiran Abeysekera. Romayne Andrews took over Cooney’s original role of Rosencrantz and both of them were superb.

Because I know the play so well, I am able to and enjoy pay attention to the little things that make up a production like this. One of the “love tokens” given to Ophelia by Hamlet is a T-shirt with “H loves O” on it: it reminded me of nothing so much of Tom Hiddleston’s infamous “I Love T.S.” shirt, and I had to stifle a giggle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned up in Elsinore with some amusing gifts: a tin of shortbread and a teapot in the shape of a red phone box.

Overall I thought this was a memorable production of Hamlet, a fresh and innovative version that I really enjoyed.

A Lesson From Auschwitz

A Lesson From Auschwitz, a short play performed in the Churchill Studio in Bromley, was a tough watch but ultimately worthwhile. The powerful Nazi Rudolf Hess lectures his audience on the importance of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while a prisoner, Abraham Konisberg, stands to one side. Hess instructs us on the necessity of “extermination”: not even women, children or war veterans will be spared. This becomes important later on when we discover that Konisberg served under Hess in the army during World War I.

As Hess, James Hyland has an imposing physical presence and an air of authority: he delivers the Nazi’s speeches with conviction in a chilling and uncomfortable performance. Michael Shon gives a powerful performance as Konisberg, a man who has been worn down by life in Auschwitz but who still retains his dignity.

This is an incredibly powerful piece by Brother Wolf and it’s worth noting that all proceeds from the performance were donated to charity. It’s not an easy watch. The ‘lesson’ from Auschwitz that Hess wanted to impart might have been one thing, but the lesson we learn is another.

House Guest

I like visiting different theatres and I include in this the work of different amateur groups: I find the standard in London to be generally high, and the performance of House Guest I saw was no exception. Performed by the New Stagers in St Anne’s Hall, it was a unpredictable and gripping thriller.

Actors Robert and Stella live a charmed life just south of London with their young son. However, when Robert returns from a trip to Italy without him, he is forced to admit that he has been kidnapped. The kidnappers don’t want money, though: they want one of their number to stay as a guest in the home for several days. Twists and turns ensue as the couple tries to work out what is going on.

There were convincing performances from the whole cast, and the production was of the kind that has you on the edge of your seat throughout. A really enjoyable evening.