Edward Martin Collins discusses his approach to directing ‘The Scottish Play’.
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most accessible play and one of the shortest. It was written with King James the First in mind, and there are many political tropes throughout the play. James traced his lineage from Banquo; indeed, in Holinshed’s Chronicles, one of the main sources for the play, Banquo is Macbeth’s accomplice in killing Duncan. Even Shakespeare could toady to the King.
Casting for the play was gender blind. In 1611 there would have been no women present on stage as all parts were played by men. There were certain artistic challenges presented in our casting, but the overall look and tenor of the production have been the defining goals.
Throughout rehearsals I was keen that the cast gained a full and comprehensive understanding of the language, history and timeline of the play. The final blocking of the characters on stage was arrived at only after long and sometimes arcane discussion of the textual interpretation. To ensure this was fruitful, and also did not detract from the action, we used a dialogue coach throughout the rehearsal period to take deep dives into the text and help with ensuring our use of Shakespeare’s language would be understood by a modern audience. Apart from some judicious cuts we have used the definitive Arden edition of the text throughout.
It is often said that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the happiest couple in Shakespeare. Over the centuries the characterisation of Macbeth has regularly been conditioned by that of his Lady, depicting a Macbeth strongly influenced, even dominated by, his wife. Through careful reading of the text we can see the shift in power between the couple until, following the murder of Banquo, the power begins to shift dramatically. Macbeth becomes more isolated from others through his actions until, alone at the end, he ruminates on what might have been:
“And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends
I must not look to have.”
It is with these thoughts he embarks upon his final battle with the armies of Malcolm and Siward.
All is as the witches prophesied.
The witches, after Macbeth and his Lady, are probably the best known characters in Macbeth. Their initial meeting with Macbeth and Banquo sets up and drives the tragedy of the rest of the play. Rather than passive voices, I have looked to show their influence by using the witches as attendants, messengers and murderers, their hand guiding the action towards its inevitable conclusion. They are often seen, throughout this production, not only as protagonists but as observers of the action ensuring their prophecies come to fruition.
Macduff’s driving force in our production is his love of Scotland and order, a love which leads to disastrous consequences personally which in turn become the “whetstone of your sword”. Revenge, not rage, drives him towards the end.
In history, Duncan was a King more ”suited to the monastic” than the throne, and we have tried to portray this through his raiment and gestures.
Religious imagery and gestures are used throughout to show that Scotland is a country in transition between its pagan past and Christian future. Many of the Northern Thanes were still almost Icelandic in their beliefs, while the Lowland Thanes were heavily influenced by the monks of Northumbria and Iona. Macbeth is firmly in the former.
One very important fact to understand is that in Scotland at this time succession was chosen through Tanistry and not familial lineage. In this system the Tanist is the office of heir-apparent, or second-in-command, among the (royal) Gaelic patrilineal dynasties of Ireland, Scotland and Mann, to succeed to the chieftainship or to the kingship. When Macbeth learns that Malcolm, and not he, is to become heir to the throne early in the play, it is one of the key drivers to his and his Lady’s actions in seizing the throne.
I hope our audiences enjoy this production of Macbeth and take away a deeper understanding of the complexities of a play often felt as “linear” in its construction.
Edward Martin Collins
Macbeth, presented by the Progressive Players, runs from 9 to 14 October at
The Little Theatre Gateshead.
Tickets available online at Macbeth at Little Theatre Gateshead event tickets from TicketSource,
or by phone on 01914781499.