This week, the famous British company Cheek by Jowl performed Macbeth in Hong Kong. I went to the show, to a workshop run by the company, and then to the show again. It is a great piece of theatre, even though it betrays the text.
The venue of the performance, the Lyric Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, is a cavernous place with two balconies and well over a thousand seats. Many times, I have gone to plays there and thought, “I enjoyed that, but I sure wish I could have seen it in a better theatre.” Cheek by Jowl dealt with the limitations of the venue very well. Their style of acting is whole-body physical, and the actors move extraordinarily well. People I respect complained that the blocking was too busy. It certainly was busy: in Act I Scene 7, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth chase each other across the stage in domestic-quarrel mode, seeming to say, “You stop right there! I have something to say to you!” I was fine with that, though. When you perform a warhorse like Macbeth, you need to do something to make it fresh, and the movement was so fluid, I thought it worked. And they have the most powerful voices I’ve ever encountered.
The scenes were made to interpenetrate. For example, at the end of Act I Scene 4, the stage is quite full of people. Duncan has just announced his effort to will the kingdom to his son, and then that he will stay in Macbeth’s castle that night. At the end of the scene, Macbeth hurries off to make the announcement to his wife, but all the rest of the cast freeze. Lady Macbeth enters reading his letter shortly before the freeze, when her name is mentioned, and she threads her way in through the frozen actors without seeing them. A moment comes when they all unfreeze and exit out of character. I found this powerful and exciting.
When the time comes to announce Duncan’s death, the actor playing Duncan enters and plants himself centre stage. The tributes to Duncan that ensue are oriented around the actor. That worked, and brought a centre to the emotion of the moment. In Act V, after the sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth seats herself down centre. As Macbeth talks about her with the doctor, he looks into her face with his hand on her cheek or her neck. She is still there when Seyton enters to say, “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” She gets up and walks off, leaving Macbeth alone to do “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” That was powerful.
Many of the other best moments were nonverbal. For me, the best one is at the end of the banquet scene in Act III. Macbeth has just been screaming in front of the nobles about his vision of Banquo’s ghost. Finally, Lady Macbeth tells them all to go away. The last one turns to say, “Better health attend his majesty.” And then there is a long, long pause as both move around, recovering from the trauma of the moment, until finally they sit down at opposite ends (apparently, as it is mimed) of a long table. That was theatrical magic.
The production departs from usual understandings of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is not very steely. When she says “Fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty,” she seems to really need this, and the tension between her desire to be evil and her inherent fragility seems to be driving her mad from the beginning of the show. Macbeth does not seem to have either the vaulting ambition or the tender conscience of the character I have always imagined. He is involved with an interaction with Lady Macbeth without any deep inner conflict of his own.
When I first saw the play, I came away feeling happy and excited about the production, as my two companions did, too. At the same time, I expressed reservations about the characterization. I didn’t find it possible to believe that the character of Macbeth I saw on the stage would be capable of massacring entire families to suit his ambition. I had a lesser problem with Lady Macbeth–lesser, because she is not required to become a political mass murderer. The murder of Duncan is the only one she is involved with, so it is less of a problem if she can only just barely manage that one.
At the workshop, the associate director asked us for questions about the production. Someone asked about the characterization of Lady Macbeth. He said that in the conception of the company, the Macbeths commit the murder for each other. That is to say that Macbeth has little or no vaulting ambition of his own, but he wants to give the gift of the monarchy to his wife, and it is the same in reverse for her.
When I saw the show again, that made sense of much of what they did. In Act I scene 7, Macbeth of course announces ,“we shall proceed no further in this business.” Lady Macbeth first becomes scornful of his manhood, as the text demands, but having done that, she crosses down left, sits down and begins to cry. Macbeth slowly crosses the stage, puts a hand on her shoulder, and finally agrees to do it. The presence of Lady Macbeth on the stage with Macbeth in Act V also makes more sense then, and her death is made to be more of a major event in the plot than the text suggests. Just before the banquet scene in Act III, the two dance together, lovingly, as the court claps and then dances with them.
I don’t want to suggest that they failed to present some conception of the play that I perceive as “Shakespeare’s intention” or any such nonsense. I do want to point out, though, that this interpretation softens many parts of the text that carry a lot of drama because of their hardness. Lady Macbeth is the most misogynistic character in Shakespeare. Her speeches carry a total, unequivocal contempt for women, and she has contempt for women exactly because they have “the milk of human kindness.” If she becomes a fond if misguided wife, there is no place for that very hard Lady Macbeth in the play. That means that the motivation for her insanity in the sleepwalking scene is far less clear, less dramatic. Macbeth, for his part, clearly and explicitly condemns himself to Hell, and it is also clear and explicit that he does this because of his own ambition for himself. That hard and personal ambition carries much of the plot from the banquet onwards. In Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation, he needed to kill Banquo, Macduff’s family, and many unnamed others out of love for Lady Macbeth. This would need development in a coherent play. He would need dialogue with, or monologues about, Lady Macbeth to show how this political ruthlessness arises out of that love. The words of his enemies about his tyrannical, treacherous, murderous qualities would need to contrast effectively with his tenderness toward his wife. None of this happens, because the text offers no opportunity for any of this to happen. To do a complete job of what they were trying to do, they would need to rewrite parts of the play.
The production was fresh, and that is an achievement with a play like this. I counted up, and this is the seventh production of Macbeth I have seen, including the one I directed, but not including films. I am prepared to accept imperfection in one area because of something striking in another. An excellent production that betrayed the text.