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.

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Macbeth

The second Macbeth production at the Globe in only a few years promised much: directed by Iqbal Khan, starring Ray Fearon and Tara Fitzgerald, it sounded like something that might have been performed by the RSC. Ultimately, I was a bit disappointed by the production.

For one thing, there were four witches. Four? I was actually distracted for much of the play, trying to work out why. Another touch was to have a child belonging to the Macbeths running around the place: a rather strange innovation, though effective in the memorable closing scene. The music was impressive, but slightly overpowering, I thought.

The two leads were effective and had strong chemistry; I particularly liked Fearon’s strong performance. Some of the other scenes fell flat, particularly the scene between Malcolm and Macduff in Act 4, although I did like the Porter scene, featuring a brilliant Nadia Albina.

Overall, a slightly disappointing experience: not as good, in my opinion, as the Macbeth a few years back at the Globe starring Joseph Millson and Samantha Spiro. Oh well.

Macbeth

I originally booked the Young Vic’s production of Macbeth months ago, before I realised it was a dance-theatre piece, so I have to admit I was slightly apprehensive as I took my seat. As it turned out, though, the dance wasn’t really an issue.

Lizzie Clachan’s stark set plays with perspective, and there are plenty of hidden doors for characters to escape into. The dancing, rather than being a constant part of the show, is intermittent: the scene at the Macbeths’ house, for instance, where the characters all get their groove on. Lucy Guerin’s choreography is used to greatest effect with the witches: though they wear some rather dubious flesh-coloured leotards, their jerky movements are unsettling and effectively evoke their otherworldliness.

As far as the rest of the production was concerned, I didn’t love it. John Heffernan is an incredibly well-spoken Macbeth, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by him. Anna Maxwell Martin, so good on screen, seemed lost here. The whole production struck me as rather bloodless – figuratively as well as literally – and I wasn’t especially engaged by it. Macduff, in particular, seemed hardly to respond at all when told that his entire family had just been murdered.

I have to admit I was disappointed by this production, not least because it was directed by Carrie Cracknell, who did such a good job on A Doll’s House a few years ago. Still, you can’t win them all I suppose!

Macbeth (2015)

I don’t normally visit the cinema these days, but I had to make an exception for Justin Kerzel’s new film of Macbeth. Against a beautiful backdrop of scenery, filled with rich colours, the play runs its course in a compelling production, beginning with the burial of the couple’s child: an artistic liberty which lends depth to the Macbeths’ characters and influences Lady Macbeth in particular.

Michael Fassbender is very strong as Macbeth, entirely believable as a successful army leader and compelling as he is steeped deeper and deeper into bloody betrayal. Marion Cotillard is superb as Lady Macbeth, compelling in her wickedness and human and sympathetic in her grief. Her “mad” scene in particular, which sees her return to her former home and deliver her speech quietly, crouching on the floor, seeing the figure of her child playing before her, is touching and sad.

The play has been cut to fit into its two-hour running time, and it flows superbly. I particularly liked the ending of the film, with its insinuation that the Scottish throne itself is cursed and the bloodshed will continue. An excellent addition to the canon of filmed Shakespeare.

 

RIFT’s Macbeth

2014_0717BalfronTower

The Balfron Tower, where the performance took place

Most people celebrate their birthday with a night out, or at least a cake. I chose to spend mine in a tower block in east London. Why? To experience RIFT’s Macbeth, of course. I did try to get some of my friends to come with me, but they weren’t having any of it, so I shrugged my shoulders and booked anyway.

RIFT impressed with their attention to detail even before the night of the show. I received a “passport” in the post, which I had to fill in before I arrived. Sadly I wasn’t particularly adventurous when filling in my details – I wish I’d gone a bit wild! On arrival at the Balfron Tower – a landmark of modernism built by Erno Goldfinger – we had to go through “passport control”, where the border guards of the fictional Eastern European state of Borduria checked our documents and took away our luggage to be placed in our rooms. This took place outside, in the shadow of the somewhat forbidding building.

Once this was done, it was straight into the play, which took place in fits and starts over the next four hours or so. We got into the building via the basement car park, where we encountered the witches and witnessed their encounter with Macbeth – an atmospheric scene-setter. After going up several floors in the lift, we were taken to the Macbeths’ apartment, which was to be our base for the evening.

The performance must have taken a great deal of organisation, as everything flowed seamlessly. Characters came in and out, delivered speeches and made conversations, as if we were flies on the wall. Throughout the evening we were taken to different parts of the building in order to witness different scenes.For instance we were in the bar when Macbeth returned to greet his wife, and we were sitting down to eat our (rather tasty) meal when the couple entered and the scene turned into the famous one with Banquo’s ghost. I have never attended a performance that felt so immediate, so much as though I was a part of it.

There was a brief interlude of excitement when we entered an area which seemed to be full of characters from a Dostoyevsky novel. However these were the characters acting out the murder of Duncan. The tone of this section was fairly bizarre.

Towards the end of the evening, as the play drew to its macabre conclusion, we spent a lot of time in the TV room watching rolling news. Some reviewers have criticised this for being too static and dull, however I personally thought it was very effective at conveying what it might have been like to be in a castle under siege, waiting for (and in our case watching) the soldiers approach. As they burst into our room, we were taken prisoner, and were made to march upstairs and onto the roof, where we witnessed the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff.

I absolutely loved the experience – the four hours flew by. It would be easy to dismiss this production as gimmicky, but RIFT have clearly thought about the quality of the production itself as well as the whole experience. The acting was superb throughout, particularly from Humphrey Hardwicke (Macbeth) and Lowri James (Lady Macbeth). The supporting roles were also well-cast, with each actor giving their all, whether they were playing a character in Macbeth or one of the officials from Borduria.

My only criticism is that I think more could have been made of the overnight experience – we weren’t able to witness Macduff’s coronation on the roof of the building as it had rained overnight, so there was really no reason for us to stay over. Having said that, I don’t regret the experience for a second. It was extremely memorable, I met some great people, and enjoyed one of the most unique Shakespearean productions I’m ever likely to witness.

Macbeth of Fire and Ice

I don’t know what it is about 2013, but productions of Macbeth have been surprisingly plentiful this year. So far, I’ve seen Jamie Lloyd’s production at the Trafalgar Studios, the Globe’s version, a puppet show starring birds at the Little Angel Theatre – and now this one, a version influenced by Norse mythology.

Macbeth of Fire and Ice is a powerful production, evoking Nordic references in the speeches, the coldness of Scandinavian landscapes and the heat of Icelandic volcanoes. Shakespeare’s play is a good fit for this kind of production, with its harsh brutality and supernatural overtones. Ultimately, though, I didn’t think it quite fulfilled its potential.

Macbeth

This year has seen a spurt of productions of Macbeth. Earlier this year I saw Jamie Lloyd’s modern, gutsy version for Trafalgar Transformed; a couple of months ago I was at the Globe to see the more traditional but equally good production there. This version at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, however, has to be the most unusual – it is performed by puppets.

Taking inspiration from the sheer amount of avian imagery in the play, the creators of this wonderful piece of work have turned the characters into bird puppets. Lyndie Wright’s designs are wonderfully imaginative: Macbeth and his fellow warriors become strutting cockerels, Lady M is a preening chicken, the royal characters are swans and the three witches are frightening-looking vultures. Against a simple, dark backdrop, the characters – controlled by talented puppeteers Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James – play out their tale in a hugely atmospheric environment.

At just an hour and a half, the play has clearly been cut down but Peter Glanville’s production is all the better for it: the unnecessary scenes with the Porter have been done away with, and the whole thing is perfectly paced, tense and clear. At first I wasn’t keen on the pre-recorded speeches – even though they were voiced by such highly acclaimed actors as Nathaniel Parker and Helen McCrory – but over time I realised that the detached, disembodied nature of the voices really suited the play. Though it’s a puppet show, this is definitely a tale for adults – it doesn’t shy away from the violence of Shakespeare’s work, with puppets spilling their guts and being hauled upside down. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes when Macduff’s children – “all my pretty chickens” who are, in this production, actually a nest of chirping chicks – are covered with a bloodied cloth to signify their death.

This wonderful production is one of the most unusual pieces of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, and one of the best. Highly recommended.