Watching Macbeth In The House That Shakespeare Built

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Title: Macbeth

Rating: 5 Stars

I watched Macbeth today at Shakespeare’s Globe. Now, I know that that isn’t really the same play house that Shakespeare performed in. It burned down 400 years ago. This incarnation was completed in 1997 about 750 feet away from the original and it was built using modern construction techniques, so the probability of it burning down is substantially reduced. However, the architects / designers did make a special effort to make the reconstruction as historically accurate as possible to replicate the feeling of going to an Elizabethan play. So, yeah, my title is not exactly accurate. So sue me.

Late last year, I was in London and went on a tour of the Globe. It was a wonderful experience and lit in me a desire to see a play there. Six months ago or so, I just happened to do a random check of the Globe web site and I saw that they were doing Macbeth as part of their summer schedule. On an impulse, I bought a ticket, with no idea of whether I would actually be able to attend the play or not. Well, things worked out and here I am!

First things first, the play was pretty awesome. Even though the character’s attire was relatively modern and there was some updating of dialog (I don’t think that even Shakespeare was a brilliant enough tragedian/comedian to include a Trump reference). I didn’t see anything happen on the stage that couldn’t have been staged in Elizabethan time, which preserved the basic essence of the event for me.

I was also struck by the fact that the actor playing Macbeth was black while the actor playing Lady Macbeth was female. Not shocking now but clearly a very real demonstration of progress that has taken place. I wonder if, like there are for the superhero comic books, there are Shakespeare equivalent geek fanboys, that get all upset to see a female playing on the stage, shrilling that the Globe is straying from the Shakespeare canon? And, ultimately, will the complaining purist comic book fanboys ultimately look as ridiculous as such theoretical Shakespearean fanboys?

At the Globe, you can buy seated tickets or you can stand in the pit (playgoers in the pit are called groundlings). In Shakespeare’s time, groundlings were the common riffraff while the seated were the people that could afford to splurge. I was tempted to do the groundling route (tickets are much cheaper and it does seem a more authentic experience), but the idea of standing around in three hours, regardless of the weather, deterred me and I went the Elizabethan one percenter route and bought a ticket. I’m glad I did. The weather, for the first time since I’ve been here, was cold and wet. Also, my seat gave me a wonderful view of the proceedings.

The groundlings were interesting. I think that their tickets were something like five pounds. It skewed, for probably obvious reasons, to a younger crowd. They did not seem at all deterred by the rain, wind, and cold. The Globe sells rain gear that many were wearing. Several others were willing to just get wet. It seems like a great tradition and a fantastic way to introduce young people to the theater experience.

I don’t how it was in Shakespeare’s day, but many aspects of the performance were devoted to the groundlings. After the intermission, there was a call and response between an actor and the groundlings. This was a great way to get the crowd back plugged into the rest of the play. Several times, individual groundlings were asked questions by an actor on stage. Actors, at times, mingled with the groundlings during the performance. The groundlings at one point were used as the army getting ready to attack Dunsinane.

The weather played to the play’s advantage. The cold, the gusts of wind, the occasional bursts of rain added to the dark, mysterious qualities of Macbeth. Although more comfortable, performing Macbeth on a bright sunny day might have actually been detracting.

One thing that I find interesting, now that I’ve seen many Shakespeare plays and I’m now starting to repeat, is how different actors / staging leads to almost different plays, even though the same words are being spoken.

This Macbeth was a fine example. The character playing Macbeth plays him with much less indecision than I’ve seen previously. He’s a strong man ready to take action. After the weird sisters’ prophecy, he almost immediately, with great confidence, begins to picture himself as being regal. He still has a momentary doubt, which Lady Macbeth successfully dispels, but after that, he’s always moving forward and confidently.

The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as played here, is predominantly a romantic one. They are clearly in love with each other and support each other as needed. At the end of Act III, after the disastrous dinner where the ghostly Banquo (expertly done) appears, there is the final scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appearing together, when they understand that the path that they have taken together is doomed, you can see their shared grief. It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Duncan, the King of Scotland, who’s usually played as a gentle yet wise king, is played here almost as if he’s a lightweight nonentity. Similarly, Malcolm, his heir apparent, until the final act shows nothing of leadership. You can imagine how such a strong person like Macbeth could have been chaffing under such weak leadership, and given a little push by fate, leaps at the opportunity to reach for the glory that possibly deservedly should be his.

The decision, six months ago, when I semi-randomly decided to buy a ticket for a play in London with absolutely no idea of how I was going to work it, has turned out to be a truly personal highlight. It’s a great memory and I’ll always be glad that I did it.

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