I'd never seen Macbeth performed before last night, which might account for my surprise when I realized just how Scottish, and, well, brutish the play is.
This version, set in the year 2063, stars James McAvoy as Macbeth, and many other Scottish actors as well. I'd never really realized James McAvoy was so Scottish, either. Years ago I saw him play the boyfriend of Jane Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) in Becoming Jane. He seemed more Irish as Tom Lefroy. But he's Glaswegian through and through. There's no faking that accent.
The thing with Shakespeare, at least for me, is that it always takes a few minutes for my ears to adjust to the Elizabethan dialogue. The rhythm, the dialect, the sentence construction, is alien to modern ears. But by the end of the play my mind deciphers it with no problem. It's like being plunged into a room full of French speakers when you don't have a good grasp of the language. This time that adjustment period was confounded by the Scottish accents, and in the opening scene, with the three Witches, even more by the fact they were wearing gas masks. I didn't catch a word they said, or rather, prophesied.
But these were all top notch actors, and as I learned later, they'd rehearsed the play using paraphrased modern language, in order to get the meaning behind the words. I don't know how common that is for Shakespearean actors, but it seems like a good idea. The meaning of the words was conveyed by the actors in ways that went beyond language, and the inflections they added to the lines were what makes seeing Shakespeare in the theatre a completely different experience than reading the dry words on paper.
We happened to be there on the same day that James McAvoy was nominated for an Olivier Award. He deserves it. His Macbeth spit, vomited, bled, and raged upon the stage for two and a half hours in a performance that must have required quite a bit of stamina. It's hard to imagine someone doing that six nights a week, plus two matinees. Especially not without going hoarse.
The audience wasn't so lucky: A quartet of coughers punctuated the dialogue with jarring effect in the intimate theatre. I can't blame them; no one can control a cough, but it was unfortunate when it happened during the quiet interludes on stage. (I did notice that after the interval the coughing stopped. I also smelled wine from the cougher nearby. Apparently wine is an effective cough suppressant.)
The industrial set and tatty Army surplus costumes were perfect for the dystopian atmosphere called for in this post-modern, climate-change affected Scotland. In the program notes, we learn that Scotland has been especially hard hit by global warming, afflicted with endless rain that made coastal cities and flood plains uninhabitable. Food is scarce; enemies plentiful. It's an environment in which anyone who tells the citizens they'll take care of their enemies is immediately annointed leader, or even king.
Macbeth, spurred on by his Lady (played by Claire Foy, of Little Dorrit fame) as well as the profecies of the Witches, is increasingly willing to kill those he perceives to be his enemies. I don't know what they used for blood, but I kept wondering how they washed it off between scenes. There was a lot of it. Not even the tap installed in the front of the stage was enough to wash it from Lady Macbeth's hands.
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
Speaking of blood, I've never seen a performance where actors were murdered on stage. It's quite disconcerting, especially when Lady Macduff was strangled. Her death throes were disturbing, as were the cries of her child soon after. No one under fourteen should see this play.
Macduff was played by Jamie Ballard, who I'd seen before in Emperor and Galilean. While he wasn't on stage for much of the play, having hotfooted it to England during the reign of increasing terror, his performance as Macduff was heartbreaking. When he's told of his family's demise, his grief is wrenching. And it's entirely appropriate that he's the one who brings the out-of-control Macbeth to justice, at the hands of a man not born to a woman. (We all knew that was coming, right?)
I won't spoil the brutal, gruesome ending—let's just say I was happy to see the entire cast take a bow with all body parts intact. Again, seeing a tragedy like Macbeth performed is quite a different experience from seeing a comedy. But it's still an experience that's moving and awe inspiring, not simply for the timelessness of Shakespeare's stories but for the incredible talent that engulfs the stage, echoing to the very rafters: The "sound and fury" indeed.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,