The destructive thirst for power
“Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
This production of Macbeth is based on the premise that evil and temptation exist in the world everywhere, all of the time. And that we human beings always have the choice to drink “the venom of evil” or take a bite of that “forbidden fruit.” But once you hear, believe and act on the promise of power, then that desire becomes the fuel of your life. It permeates and infects everything you think, do and believe — and it subsequently poisons all of your interactions. The thirst for power swallows your humanity, your sanity, your soul. You are addicted to power and a slave to it.
Part of our fascination with Macbeth is that we observe the consequences of this addiction in a world of greed, ambition and murder. The result is gruesome: We witness the harrowing destruction of the two leading characters in the play. The story of this play is timeless; it has been replayed over and over again throughout history and across the world.
Indeed, Macbeth is emblematic of the many assassinations and coups that are as alive today as ever. I decided to reference this production to pre-Taliban Afghanistan because it evokes a world that is at once exotic, dangerous, familiar and unknown. It is also a world with which we have a modern connection. Today, when we hear the word “Afghanistan,” a complex combination of images and thoughts immediately arises, and this gives us a powerful cultural landscape to embrace. In this context, it’s as well to remember what can happen if one takes a bite of that “forbidden fruit.”
— Jane Page, director
Returning from battle, the king’s generals, Macbeth and Banquo, meet three witches, who greet Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and future king and predict that Banquo will be father of kings. Macbeth is promptly named Thane of Cawdor by Duncan, the current king.
Emboldened by the witches’ predictions, Macbeth and his wife begin plotting to kill Duncan and claim the crown. While hosting the king for a night, they murder him in his sleep and frame his sleeping guards for the crime, killing them in a feigned show of revenge once the murder is discovered.
Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee in fear for their safety and Macbeth is made king. As time passes, Banquo begins to suspect Macbeth, who fears the witches’ prophecy that Banquo will be father of kings. He arranges to have Banquo and his son Fleance killed, but Fleance escapes.
Banquo’s ghost haunts Macbeth, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Macbeth seeks out the witches once more; the witches warn him to beware Macduff, and prophesy that Macbeth shall not be harmed by any man born of woman, and that he will reign “till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,” his stronghold.
When Macduff flees to join Malcolm in exile, Macbeth has Macduff’s wife and children murdered. Macduff convinces a reluctant Malcolm to return to fight Macbeth and claim his father’s crown. Macbeth, convinced of his invincibility, prepares for battle as Lady Macbeth, who is quickly deteriorating, has begun sleepwalking.
Macbeth is informed of her death as Malcolm and Macduff’s forces reach Dunsinane, having cut boughs from Birnam Wood for camouflage. As Macduff and Macbeth meet in the final battle, Macduff reveals he was not “born,” but ripped from his mother’s womb, and kills Macbeth. Malcolm and Macduff are victorious over Macbeth’s forces, and Malcolm is proclaimed king.
— Heidi Schmidt, dramaturg
Many Macbeths for many audiences
In 1603, James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Two years later, a group of Catholic conspirators dug a tunnel under Parliament, loaded it with barrels of gunpowder, and waited for the king to arrive. The plot was discovered and the conspirators’ aim of murdering their king and restoring Catholicism to England was thwarted. They were arrested, tried and executed for treason. The Gunpowder Plot, as it became known, was likely on Shakespeare’s mind the following year when he wrote Macbeth, a tragedy revolving around the murder of a Scottish king. It was certainly on the minds of his audience.
Since then, directors and adapters have been fascinated with the ways in which Macbeth speaks to their world. They have shown great ingenuity in interpreting the play to speak to their audience and reveal new insights into murder, the right of governance and the nature of evil. Perhaps the most famous staging of Macbeth was directed in 1936 by a 20-year-old Orson Welles as part of the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit in Harlem. Welles transposed the Scottish play to 19th-century Haiti, portraying the witches as voodoo priestesses surrounded by a corps of African drummers, whose presence lent an aural and visceral intensity to the performance and highlighted the supernatural elements in the play.
Barbara Garson’s 1960s adaptation Macbird! follows the story of a vice president (Macbird) and his wife (Ladybird) and their ascent to power in a direct commentary on the Johnson presidency and Kennedy assassination. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, currently running in New York, invites audience members — all masked — to wander through the rooms of a hotel in a voyeuristic Macbeth-inspired experience. A National Theatre of Scotland production of a one-man Macbeth, in which Alan Cumming plays nearly every role, recently played the Lincoln Center, and the production opened on Broadway in April 2013.
Shakespeare crafted the old story of an 11th-century Scottish king into a play in which his audience would recognize their world. At their best, these Macbeth interpretations and adaptations take a 17th-century play and render it in ways that allow us new insights into the play itself and into our own 21st-century world.
— Heidi Schmidt, dramaturg
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