A few more thoughts on one of the shows I know best - Macbeth.
- Mac is a Ghost story. So, for that matter, is Hamlet. Less so Richard III, though it has ghosts too.
- While tempting to cut, the speech by one of the witches in I.iii is actually quite important. She relates how a sailor's wife was insulting to her, and in return she's going to take her revenges on the sailor himself:
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se'nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine.
Since this is precisely what happens to Macbeth, this speech might be kinda important...
- The Prince of Cumberland moment.
Okay, this is vital. Scotland in 1050 was still a warrior society. That means that whoever of noble blood was the best warrior got to be king. By naming his son Malcolm as his heir, Duncan is shattering that tradition. By rights, it should be Macbeth. He's a kinsman to the king, and a great warrior. Duncan tries to fob Mac off with Cawdor, which should go to Macduff. Nobody is getting what they deserve.
In this, Mac is almost - almost - justified in considering regicide. Duncan is breaking faith with his thanes. And, seeing what Malcolm does later in making the thanes into earls, we understand the process is going to continue. Scotland is no longer Scotish. It's becoming English.
But back to the moment. Remember, at this point, Malcolm has almost been captured on the field. He fled, leaving Mac and Banquo to deal with the traitor MacDonwald. So, I ask, are the thanes that juiced to hear Malcolm is going to be their king someday? Or is this declaration greeted by a long, painful, uncomfortable silence? In the last four productions I've been in, the cast has opted for the silence, which I think is far more valuable - it gives everyone on stage a lot to play.
- There's a bad pun that often gets over-looked. In I.v, Duncan says:
True, worthy Banquo; he is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me.
Banquo. Banquet. The king is making a joke. But it's so bad, he almost deserves what he gets that night.
- In II.i (the dagger scene), Banquo has this line:
What, sir, not yet at rest? The king's a-bed:
He hath been in unusual pleasure, and
Sent forth great largess to your offices.
This diamond he greets your wife withal,
By the name of most kind hostess; and shut up
In measureless content.
The diamond he is referring to is not a literal jewel. It is the title, "Most kind hostess."
- The Porter and his eternal knock-knock joke. Comic relief, yes. But in one production I was in, and only one, as he was going drunkenly through his list of professions roasting in Hell, he reached a different conclusion. Here's the text:
knock; never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.
Now, insert a figure walking past him, through the castle at night. His drunken eyes behold it, and he asks, "What are you?" The light touches his face - it is King Duncan. Covered in blood, his spirit is leaving Inverness. This is not a textual choice, but a performance one. Because, while he's providing some much-needed relief, this is still a ghost story.
- A very minor point, but worth noting - at the banquet, Banquo's ghost only appears when Mac summons him. And leaves again when implored to. Mac doesn't know it, but he has the power in that scene.
- The Ross-Lennox scene (III.vi) is best if played that they are in danger of being overheard.
- Whoever it is that comes in to IV.i at the end to bring the news that Duff is fled to England (listed in the script as Lennox), this should be the same person who brings Lady Duff the news that she should get out of Dodge. Why? Because that messenger is privy to Mac's speech, the one where he swears the firstlings of his thoughts will be the firstlings of his hands. If we are to take him at his word (and, again, it is rarely valuable to assume that characters lie in soliloquies or asides), he's going to pounce this instant upon Duff's family. But Lennox - or Angus, or in the case of the current production, the Porter - whoever it is, that person is there to hear Mac's plans, and might be in a position to send a warning.
This brings up a thread I think is very important in staging - merging characters where one can. It is much, much, much more powerful for an actor to play a through-line than to have a dozen minor parts. The best example I can give is when I played Exton in Richard II. Being a history play, named characters pop up when they need to, and are never really established as people. That's Exton, who appears only in time to murder Richard. So I was triple-cast in that show, playing a soldier-herald at the top, the Welsh Captain in the middle, returning as the soldier after intermission, then becoming Exton at the end. It is my eternal shame that I didn't think to ask the director to merge these three characters - there would have been great value in seeing Exton start the show as a loyal soldier-herald, then the wavering captain of men, then at last as betrayer and murderer. It tells a better story. So now, as a director, I'm always on the lookout for those minor roles that can be strung together and played as one. It's better for the actors, and better for the audience.
- The procession of kings sucks. No matter what. Best we ever did was only to have Mac hallucinate the whole thing. Otherwise you're dealing with puppets, or a parade, or shafts of light, or something that never has the import of the moment. Because the moment is fantastic. It's just the execution that blows.
- Killing the Duff family. This is pure fun, and actually goes against the text, but I always hate it when a character is killed and then has lines. So, when I'm in charge, little Duff-boy gets killed, then one of the murderers holds him up and uses his mouth as a puppet, saying, "They have killed me, mother. Run away, I pray you!" Creepy. Add to that the breaking of a baby's neck and the audience is always recoiling in horror. Which, really, they should be.
- Mac's speech to the doctor in V.iii is much more colorful (and, I think, effective) if he's talking about himself:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
I mean, the doctor even gives it away - "minister to himself." It's obvious to everyone what Mac is talking about! Especially knowing what the doctor now knows. The poor doctor must tred very lightly here, lest the king discover the knowledge the physician gained in listening to the ravings of the sleepwalking queen.
That's enough, for now. Please bear in mind, these are the observations of an actor from within the show. If anyone has any moments you wish to discuss, please don't hesitate. Right now all I'm thinking about is this show. Which is bad, as I've got a novel coming out in two weeks.