The Curse of Macbeth

NZ Herald, 26 May 2004







It is best to talk about dark things in bright sunlight. And Shakespeare's Macbeth, a thing exploring the darkest corners of power and corrupt ambition, certainly has a lingering menace, a black soul.

So Michael Hurst and I have dragged a couple of chairs into the benevolent warmth of this autumn day. Albeit we've dragged them out into a chipsealed carpark out the front of a dank, frigid rehearsal hall behind Auckland's Motat.

But the morning's blue sky is best for shedding light on what makes the Scottish play the most malevolent of the Bard's tragedies.

Theatre tradition, of course, has its malevolence cast in the shroud of bad luck. And certainly Hurst - who opens his third version of Macbeth at the Maidment Theatre tomorrow - might claim to have felt its touch.

When he first played the infamous Scotsman as a 28-year-old in the 1986 Theatre Corporate production, he walked off the top of the set, smashed his knees and could hardly walk for a couple of performances. Then he got a lung infection that meant he had to hide inhalers all over the set.

When he directed (though did not star in) the play at the Herald Theatre in 1992, a boy fell off the set and broke his leg.

Only the gods - or perhaps demons - of theatre know what awaits this production, but Hurst, who takes the lead and directs, claims not to be superstitious about Macbeth.

If it has a reputation for bad luck - and speaking its name or quoting it in the theatre dressing room traditionally invokes a silly, convoluted ritual to dispel the curse - then it is more likely the superstition comes from the history of its playing rather than the play itself.

"The best explanation is that throughout its history, when theatres were struggling, one of the plays they would always do was Macbeth, because it was popular," he offers.

"So, as a play, it is associated with bad times in the theatre. That makes sense to me."

But there is no doubting there is a heart of darkness inside Macbeth as he and wife, Lady Macbeth (Anna Hewlett, who played Ophelia to Hurst's Hamlet in last year's lauded production), plan then execute regicide.

"The quote that I'm using from some critic I don't remember is that [it's about] knowingly waging mortal war on your own soul.

"That's what it's about - that [moral] decision and that, in spite of knowing completely what's going to happen, still doing it.

"And, I suppose, it's about succumbing to that temptation we all know is at the very edges of our consciousness, though few of us go there - well, not many people who are sane go there. But people should not make the mistake of thinking Macbeth goes mad, because he does not go mad. He's clear right to the end."

Which, of course, is what evil is. And Hurst says that is the terrifying thing - there is no excuse for Macbeth's actions.

Since his first foray across Macbeth's black heath in his 20s, his and other productions he has seen in London and here have all left him with a sense of boy's own adventure.

What he wants with this production is a crawling horror, a sense of damnation. He is on a mission to explore the tragedy's darker psychology.

"In Macbeth it doesn't just get dark, the light 'thickens'. When he says that, that's the feeling we should be having in the theatre. I'm trying to give that a go. Yes, there's a big fight at the end to satisfy the dramatic nature of the piece. It comes ready-made with witches, horror, ghosts, blood. You'd have to be an idiot, really, not to make the play flow on that level.

"But it is the deep level that we've got to find. Yes, we can do boy's own adventure, yes, we do witches. It's easy, it's in there. But ultimately, the play isn't called The Witches, or Banquo, or Ghosts, it's called Macbeth.

"What is that? I haven't got all the answers, but I'm getting there. Maybe I won't have all the answers by the end of the production."

He says he is at the right age to at least go looking for the answers.

His younger self played a highly physical and extremely action-packed Macbeth in a memorable performance yet even then he could feel something not quite there. He felt he needed to be in his 40s (he's now 46) to fully explore the character.

"When I played him when I was younger, I was valiant and a man who was nice, or a good man trying to make it that way. But he's not a nice man."

Indeed. Macbeth doesn't just kill the king, the first thing he does after that is do in two servants, then he murders his best friend Banquo (Mercy Peak's Peter Daube).

There are rumours of people hanged from trees, and he orders the murder of children.

It is a play soaked in blood and intense immorality. But Hurst says the miracle of Macbeth is that although he does all these things, incredibly, we still admire this character.

"We feel for him when he gets killed. That's the miracle of the verse - it is odd. I think the genius is in the fact that the more he starts to do this, the less he feels.

"And that's the thing that pains us, that agonises us. By the time he hears of the death of his wife and he does that famous 'tomorrow and tomorrow' speech, he is saying that life is nothing. And to me that is one of the most important words in the play after 'blood', the word 'nothing'.

"This Macbeth will look to find a way to explore the despair, not out of beating your breast, but out of nothingness. He has nowhere to go, but at the end he summons up this extraordinary bombastic, weird speech and then he has to be squashed like a bug because we can't allow that sort of evil in the world.

"It's the strain of evil, which provides a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God quality, that makes the play so appealing. We want that as an audience, we want to exorcise the demons. We don't want him to take us any further into this miasma of evil, yet we can't resist."

©Copyright 2004, New Zealand Herald



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