Interview: Michael Hurst on Macbeth
(Auckland University radio), 25 May 2004
Michael Hurst: Good morning. How are you?
NM: "By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes" . . .
MH: Mm hmm . . .
NM: . . . and there he is in front of me.
MH: I am. Eating tuna.
NM: Yes. Well, you didn't have . . . you see, it's not a visual medium, see . . .
MH: No it's not!
NM: . . . so you could have gotten away with that one, but, you know . . .
NM: So, fresh from playing an Auckland icon in Goldie . . .
MH: Yup . . .
NM: . . . now for something completely different.
MH: A Scottish icon? An English icon. An evil icon, I guess.
NM: It is a bloody piece of work, isn't it?
MH: It is a bloody piece of work. It's interesting, people think, oh, it's full of blood. It's full of the word "blood" and it's up to your discretion. You can put as much or less blood in it as you like.
NM: I did a line search yesterday . . .
NM: . . . it's got these little things, you fill in the word . . .
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah . . .
NM: . . . and they tell you how many . . . it came up in the triples, was it? Yeah.
MH: Yeah, yeah. That's a lot, it's over . . . it's a lot of numbers. The blood, the word "blood", "bloodiest"--everything's about it, so it's sort of steeped in it, yeah.
NM: I hadn't read it for years, but just going back over it--the witches, the filth, the sweat from the gibbets . . . .
MH: Yeah, yeah; it's a pretty particular piece of work. It's relentless. It's got a really simple plot. You mustn't confuse it with a complicated plot. Basically, his wife and he plot to kill the king, he gets scared, she convinces him, they kill the king, then all hell breaks loose and finally, they all die. So . . . (laughs)
NM: Everyone dies.
MH: But it doesn't matter that you know the end because what I'm finding really brilliant this time playing it--because I played it when I was younger, 28, twenty years ago--is just this relentless force of--shall I?, shan't I?, ok I will, I know it's bad, ok, I will, I know it's bad . . .
NM: But what's the line, you know when he says I'm so steeped in blood, I'm halfway there already . . .
MH: "I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er . . ."
NM: Well, that's it, isn't it? It's kind of like, well, I'm covered in it now.
MH: Yeah, I can't be frightened. And he says later, "Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, can't start me". Can't even give me a . . . And when he hears about his wife being killed, he says that great line, "she should have died hereafter". Which we think means . . . we think it means something more than it does. All it means is she would have died anyway. So what it is is he says "the queen, my lord, is dead", and he shrugs and goes, "she should have died hereafter". And the truth of what he realizes when he said it is that he can't feel anything for this woman that, at the beginning of the play, they are passionately in love. And at the end of the play, she dies and all he can go is, oh, well too bad; she would have gone anyway.
NM: I found that interesting. I think it's a play about masculinity as well, though, isn't it, you know, about what it is to be a man?
MH: Well, and what it is for a woman to try and be a man in a kind of not exactly stereotypical but--cause you can get beyond that--but she says when she asked to be made evil, she says, come, you spirits, unsex me here. Which doesn't mean take away sexuality--although it actually sort of does--it says make me know . . . make me hard inside, make me brittle. And what's really fantastic about that speech is that just as she's asked for all the, in quotation marks. womanly parts of her to be taken away, right at the very end of that speech, in walks her husband who hasn't seen her for months, at a battle, and she has to be a woman for him right at that moment, but she's asked it all to be taken away. So right at that very moment when they're supposed to be sublimely together . . .
NM: . . . man and woman together . . .
MH: . . . she is making it up. She's faking it.
NM: Is she faking it there, then?
MH: Well, she has to because she's just had it all taken out of her. It's a really interesting . . . she has to be . . .
NM: Well, if he granted her wish--if god or the spirits or whoever did unsex her then . . . ?
MH: Well, they do, don't they?
MH: Because she . . . and then she's able to say, "I have given suck. and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me--I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this".
NM: (laughing) Did you learn all the parts?
MH: I do know all the play, actually, to be honest; I know everybody's lines. The thing about the . . . that is interesting. People think, oh, she kills babies! She doesn't; she never kills a baby. She just says, had I sworn the way you swore, that's what I would have been prepared to do.
NM: So it's the follow-through, isn't it?
MH: It's the follow-through.
NM: If you swear, you have to, you have to go further.
MH: How many marriages . . . this is what I love about this play: Take away the murder and the king, and you've got a marriage breaking up. You've got a very, very well-observed . . . you know, how many times in a relationship, not necessarily a marriage, but a partnership, does one of them not follow through? And especially with men and women, often the men don't follow through. It's like looking for something--have you had a proper look or just a "man's look"? Do you know what I mean? That phenomenon of "look properly".
NM: Well, the thing I loved . . . I found her so positive the first time I read the play. You know, that line, though I would see thee crowned withal. You know, it's like she's constantly urging him to be what she knows he is, but he doesn't know he is.
MH: But who for?
NM: Well, yeah.
MH: You have to put a back-story into it. What we've said is that he's just not delivered. He's not delivered. He's not a king. When they got married, he was a prospect . He's not a king, they have no children, he hasn't been able to give her any children (questions of masculinity or not). So what has he delivered. And they've obviously, earlier, before the play, they have had a discussion about killing the king. And he's gone, "Yes, yes, I will". And now that it's actually there, ready to happen, he's scared, and that's what gets her most. She says, "when you durst do it, then you were a man".
NM: Then you can do it.
MH: Now you could have . . . and then nothing, you know, "nor time nor place did then adhere", there was no even . . . but now everything's ready to be done and now you're scared! That's what she says in that scene, it's, like, amazing and he says, don't make me do it. I'll do everything that a man can do, but if I do more, step over this boundary, I won't be a man anymore. I'll be a monster.
NM: And that's what he becomes, isn't it?
MH: And she goes on, "a little water clears us of this deed". And of course what happens is her naivete--I'll be able to handle it--is completely destroyed. And that's the truth of the tragedy, really, it's not that he becomes this killing, child-murdering monster. That's partly it. What it is is that she and. . . she sees the moment that he starts to go off onto this tangent, she goes, come on, come to bed, what's done is done; and he goes, "we've scorched the snake, not killed it". And you can see . . . in that scene you can see her go--oh, my, god, he was right. And he starts doing stuff that just . . . and she can't deal with it; she goes mad and then he can't feel for her death, and there's nothing left and . . .
NM: Is it dangerous, getting so close to all of this all the time?
MH: Well, you know I'm not a very suspicious actor and I kind of . . . I don't buy into the, you know, never-say-it-in-the-dressing-room sort of thing. But, having said that, we're doing the lights and stuff at the moment and we're creating a dark world, there's no question about it. And even if you lit it with full-on bright lights all the time, what they're doing is relentlessly dark. It's got no joy in it other than illicit, the joy of doing something that's absolutely . . . that weird joy . . .
NM: Or connecting to that.
NM: I remember reading an interview with Brad Pitt while he was doing Seven, you know, and he said just the break out the razor blades, basically . . .
NM: . . . I was a basket case. Are you taking long walks, kind of getting out into the air?
MH: Ah, well, poor Brad. (????) acting. My thing is that, seriously, is, you know, if you're going to go home and start murdering . . . I've dreamt about murdering my children, he said horribly, doing this play, but, you know, I don't walk around being Macbeth; that's kind of . . .
NM: Well, you can't carry all that . . .
MH: Well, I think any actor that does that's being a bit (whispers) of a wanker, actually. But, we won't go there. So, yeah, I mean, but it is dark, and here we are doing some terrible stuff together. I mean, to me, the most frightening moment is when Lady Macbeth comes back, having smeared the grooms with blood, with her hands bloody and grabs hold of my hand and there's this moment where the hands come together, and I've just said, oh, god, you know, "will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red"-- fantastic line--and then she goes--bang! and the blood just splatters out of the hands. That's the most frightening moment for me. She says, "my hands are of your color; but I shame to wear a heart so white". Just, you know . . . that's the dark area. The violence, the fight . . . if you make this play about a fight at the end, you've missed it. That's what I think.
NM: I mean, they all end with a fight, don't they?
MH: Well, they do. And that's because, well, someone like Macbeth, that strain of evil, has to be not just killed, has to be extirpated, is what I think. Like a bug, it has to be . . . and in Macbeth in particular he doesn't die on stage, he dies off stage 'cause there's to be no glory in that death. That's like . . . it's like Hitler in the bunker.
NM: But he made the choice . . . well, he's different to Hitler in a way because he made the choice to take everyone with him
MH: Yes, he did. Well, he made the choice, he made the choice to knowingly wage this mortal war on his own soul, so he knows about damnation. In tragedy--anyone's that's doing tragedy, you should know--you know that in tragedy, one of the things that happens to the tragic hero is a recognition point, ok, they realize--like in Oedipus is the classic one-- he realizes at the very end of the play, he realizes that it's him, and then pokes his eyes out--go figure. But, in Macbeth, that recognition is almost the entire play. He knows from the moment he gets the idea, or confirmation of his idea, which he's had before the play, the entire play is about him recognizing, in slow motion, his own damnation. So it's like a suspended . . .
NM: It's just a road to perdition, basically.
MH: It is a road to perdition. It's like . . . and I think the effect . . . I'm trying to get the effect of audience trapped into chairs, watching in slow motion this dreadful traffic accident that they can't do anything about but they're fascinated . . .
NM: But people can't walk away.
MH: . . . can't walk away.
NM: Is that what you want from the audience? What do you want from an Auckland audience?
MH: That's what I want. I want them . . . well, that's what I'm trying to get across that, you know, there are some things in our lives we have to do. We have to exorcise aspects of ourselves. Often, we have to laugh and have a big scream. Sometimes we have to go to something and see that dark side, which we all know is there, and take the journey as far as we can cause we can go home and have a drink, and then go to bed, but the person doing it--Macbeth, Lady Macbeth--have to be killed. You know, it's only on stage, sure, but they . . . that has to happen. And I . . .
NM: For your universe to . . .
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think that . . . that's why I see tragedy, this kind of one, especially this exploration and why it's so popular, I think, throughout history is that it takes you as far as it can down that road. He goes to some pretty terrible places and you're kinda there with him the whole way in a strangely I-can't-look-away way. You don't like him necessarily, but there's a sort of admiration. It's a miracle of a play, really. And I guess sometimes, we need to have that in our lives. That's why we . . . isn't that why we have horror films and very scary things in our lives watching people do things that we would never do in our own life, really, but vicariously, it's . . .
NM: . . . through a glass darkly . . .
MH: It's vicarious damnation, basically, yeah.
NM: I like it.
MH: (big laugh)
NM: And that's Macbeth, it's vicarious damnation, you heard it here first on BFM!
MH: That's right!
NM: Fantastic. So, um, housekeeping, now, where is it on, tell me now . . .
MH: Maidment Theatre, it opens on Saturday night, that's the 29th of May, runs for four weeks. I know that probably everybody says this, but tickets are actually selling really fast so it's going well, and, um . . .
NM: Is this your own group, this is . . .
MH: Yeah, The Large Group.
NM: . . . The Large Group, yeah?
MH: I did a Hamlet last year which was a great success in terms of, you know, its artistic success and everything and it was . . . yeah, people were, I think, surprised and somewhat relieved that they could "get" Shakespeare and so I'm hoping I can follow up on that. It's a very different feel, of course. Yeah, it's The Large Group. I'm interested in getting epic back into the theatre and taking out the television.
NM: The bigger the epic . . .
MH: Yeah, yeah, the bigger the epic. I mean, if you're in theatre watching tv, what are you in the theatre for?
NM: I love it.
MH: (big laugh)
NM: Michael Hurst, thank you very much for joining us on The Wire.
NM: Vicarious damnation . . .
NM: . . . Macbeth at the Maidment.