The Scottish Play

April 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that captured my imagination. (Well, if I’m being accurate, it was actually A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I saw that when I was ten and I thought the most amazing thing about it was… wait for it… the insults. My brother and I spent the next few weeks yelling ‘You bead! You acorn!’ at each other, probably to much maternal chagrin.) Julius Caesar might have been the first one I read at school, but it left me cold. Macbeth, though – from the very first meeting of the witches on the heath, I understood what the fuss was all about. I was completely enthralled. I have been ever since.

And yet, Macbeth is the play of which I’ve probably seen the fewest performances or other adaptations. There was the outdoor performance I saw in Fort Tryon Park on my first trip to New York (where the actors moved to a new location to indicate each scene change and the audience had to follow), of which I still have warm memories, and there was Roman Polanski’s version, which is easily one of the worst things ever committed to film, Shakespeare or otherwise – the awful acting, the tone-deaf treatment of the language, the ear-splittingly horrible score, the gratuitous nudity… after seeing The Pianist I finally forgave him, but only just. And I should probably – make that definitely – make a point of seeing the Patrick Stewart version (I haven’t yet). But up until a couple of weeks ago, that was it.

So when I heard, back in December, about a production of Macbeth in the spring in the newly renovated Trafalgar Studios with James McAvoy in the title role, I was down at the box office like a shot. I then had to wait four months to see it, but was it worth the wait? Yes, yes and yes.

Oddly, given that actors superstitiously refer to Macbeth as ‘the Scottish play’, this production was the first I’d ever seen to insist so strongly on the play’s Scottishness – and not in a hackneyed kilts-and-bagpipes manner. It’s set in 2063, in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, much closer, in its gritty, unremitting grimness, to Trainspotting than Burns or Scott, and most of the cast is Scottish.

If you’re accustomed to hearing your Shakespeare delivered in impeccable RP (which I’ve become used to in the years I’ve lived in London) or in an American accent (which I grew up with, and which I’ve heard said is actually somewhat closer to Elizabethan English), hearing the text of Macbeth spoken with a Scottish burr is a bit of a jolt at first. But then your ears adjust. It gives the text a different music, drawing out hidden and unexpected nuances.

Nowhere more so than with McAvoy. So many of his film roles have required an English accent that it’s easy to forget that it isn’t his own. Listening to him – and watching him – take on Macbeth in his own accent felt like the aural equivalent of bursting out of a straitjacket, stretching his voice into places I’d never heard it go before, taking the text on a wild ride that the powers that be at the RSC probably wouldn’t entirely approve of (but who says their way is the only way?) but which was terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. There’s the similarly powerful and unnerving physicality – the lethal smile that flashes out and disappears like a flick knife, the quicksilver unpredictability of movement, and a curious kind of illusionism… McAvoy is, supposedly, only 5’7”. Yet on that stage he seemed a giant, towering over everyone else.

Would I say that McAvoy is the best Macbeth ever? No more so than there is one best version of any of Shakespeare’s characters – their glory is that they’re endlessly open to interpretation. What he is, in my humble opinion anyway, is the most gripping Macbeth I’ve ever seen.

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