By Dan Bavister
Macbeth is a play about power. Power wielded by the weak and the wise, the just and unjust, the legitimate and illegitimate. It is a play about a Scottish thane and general who kills the King of Scotland and usurps his crown. Witches conspire with a man who ruthlessly pursues power to appoint him as the new leader of the Scottish nation, only for Macbeth to meet a grizzly end when it becomes clear he is unsuited to high office. Order is restored with the return of Malcolm, the legitimate heir to the slain King Duncan, to the Scottish throne, but this fact is the sole, lacklustre consolation amidst a drama littered with darkness and death.
The summer 2023 performance of Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe, within the Thameside reconstruction of Shakespeare’s famed ‘wooden O’, decidedly leans into the power politics at the heart of this play. Director Abigail Graham recasts the three witches, traditionally represented as weird sisters, as a trio of ominous brothers wearing full hazmat suits and plague doctor masks. As the deaths in this grim tragedy stack up, the bodies of Macbeth’s enemies and of Macbeth himself are wheeled across the stage on mortuary gurneys, the slow, methodical steps of the witches – reimagined as clinical arbiters of power and death – submitting the audience to the inexorable march of ambition, hubris, and ultimate fall of our tragic hero.
In the Act 4 ‘boil and bubble’ scene, the witches make gruesome smoothies from human remains. And all the while, through each and every scene of graphic horror, the witches wear their clean white, scientific garments, presiding over the grim but orderly dismemberment not just of human bodies but of the body politic. The imagery, especially in light of the Covid pandemic, is stark but commanding and relentlessly forceful in its dissection of power.
Macbeth is played by Max Bennett, whose monomaniacal but comedic rendition of the eponymous protagonist ensures the usurping king seems somewhat uneasy on the Scottish throne from the off. At one point, he tears off his coronation robes and crown, casts them aside and proceeds to jaunt shirtless about the stage for most of the remaining play, in a visual representation of his moral and social decline after his enhanced political power following his killing of Duncan. Notably, the slain Duncan in this adaptation is not king but queen of Scotland, played expertly by Tamzin Griffin. There are obvious parallels to be made with another, more recent ruler of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who was forced from office in March this year, although such an interpretation may limit what is also, in a broader sense, a meditation on the way in which women leaders must wrangle with the often-misogynistic, male-oriented system of modern power politics. This theme is echoed still further when Lady Macbeth, portrayed with masterful emotion and sensitivity by Matti Houghton, invokes the ‘spirits’ to ‘unsex [her] here’, replacing her feminine compassion with the cold, remorseless psychopathy of the male lust for unbridled acclaim, only to die, another wayside casualty of the male characters’ reckless road towards absolute authority and renown.
This adaptation of the so-called ‘Scottish Play’ is unrelentingly fresh and vigorous in its examination of power, and while at times it falls short of the vision of a wasted, crepuscular nation laid out in Shakespeare’s verse, it achieves a sophisticated balancing act of attachment to contemporary politics with a more timeless meditation on the nature of power. It is also rich with humour, resplendent with zeal and focused unashamedly on driving forwards the dramatic, intrigue-riddled bloodbath of Shakespeare’s shortest and most tightly-bound of his major works. This is a truly excellent execution of a play that feels increasingly like a dark evocation of our present times.
Image: Johan Persson via Globe Theatre