Director Gregory Doran and his Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, spent much time talking with psychologists and murderers as they rehearsed the Royal Shakespeare Company's next production of the Scottish play. Their conversations promise a performance of electrifying intensity. Sher, famous for his physical, shape changing Richard III, is now concerned to explore and portray the troubled inwardness of Shakespeare's characters.
Doran highlights one crucial aspect of that inwardness: "When Lady Macbeth reflects that her husband is 'not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it', our production shows Macbeth getting that illness. He too has a mind diseased. If he has a fatal flaw, it's his ability to imagine, but that is also his redeeming feature, because it activates his conscience and lets him envisage his own downfall."
Children are the unseen motivators of Macbeth's decline. Sher and Walter play the husband and wife as a couple who have suffered the loss of their only child. That searing emotional crisis is reignited by the prospect of Banquo's children succeeding to "their" throne.
"They become horribly trapped in a downward spiral," says Doran. "They share a tearful and fatal mutual interdependence, and bring about their own destruction as they drive themselves into madness." Doran hopes his audiences will feel "a sense of horror at the destruction of a good man, not of a man who is naturally evil".
Doran gives the Macbeths' psychological maelstrom a very specific political setting: "at the start of the play there's a war going on, a military coup has been attempted". So his production does not begin with the witches but "from the sense of fear that pervades the play. The country itself is sick, and that's more frightening and potent than creating a cult of black magic."
Doran feels that some productions have been "hijacked by the supernatural". He expresses scepticism about making the witches the central feature of any staging. "They are not the powerhouse of the play, they are scavenging on society. They characterise the sense of evil that infects the play but the more frightening evil is the power that lies within the characters themselves, unleashed as their moral universe disintegrates."
That means keeping the focus squarely on the Macbeths. Here, Doran feels guided by Shakespeare's dramatic construction and language. "The play possesses an extraordinary dynamic. It positively hurtles, and its astonishing momentum is lost if you overload it with directorial concepts. And the language is compressed, very taut. That means you have to be wary of sacrificing resonance for relevance. A modern dress production is in danger of concealing the world of metaphor that is in the play."
So Doran advises his actors to be alert to the images Shakespeare gives them, and he enthuses how these will be enriched by his playing space, the atmospheric Royal Shakespeare stage.
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