Written by Waseem Akhtar Usmani
The second latest adaptation in the history of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is now out as part of a lockdown effort to keep the spirits up. Macbeth the drama takes us inside the mind of a murderer, making it an unlikely candidate for keeping the spirits up. Up on the online YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On!, Macbeth the Musical turns that mind inside out, displaying it all on-screen before us all. How does director Rupert Goold’s manage to make Macbeth raise our spirits?
Goold makes early use of technology’s ultimate token of death, the breathing machine, with its dreaded straight line. This is our first intimation of the carnage to come. This is followed by the lights in the hallway abruptly going out. And we hear the first witch ask, “When shall we meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” “When the battle’s lost, and won” the second witch replies. This identity of opposites will be the witch's mantra. Why are the witches dressed in nurses’ clothes? Do they save lives, or take them? We are left confused. Later they will appear as chefs, ready to nourish. Yet equally bent on their initial and final mission. “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” the last witch declares. Opposites are identical once again. This mantra will continue to haunt the Macbeths.
The witches await Macbeth, who makes his entry with an exit from the elevator. It’s Patrick Stewart! His first dialogue almost repeats the last witch’s: “so foul and fair a day we haven’t seen.” Does this already tell us that Macbeth is on team witch?
The witch whose dialogue Macbeth has just almost repeated announces: “Thou shalt be king hereafter.“ All we see is the witch's mouth, followed by a quick glance at her eyes. It is as if the camera does not want us to see the mouth when we see the eyes, and the eyes when we see the mouth. But Banquo, feeling disregarded, interrupts with “Speak then to me.” He is carrying a gun in hand as if he believes he can kill these creatures who he’s not even sure are alive. Banquo is in no position to demand, yet he does so. The response he gets mirrors the ambivalence of his position. “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater! Not so happy, yet much happier.” The stubbornly ambivalent witches leave Banquo less satisfied than he was before. Not content with kingship for his children, we are to imagine that wants it for himself?
With Banquo out of earshot, Macbeth begins his “Two truths are told as happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme” soliloquy. He is torn between bad and good. Both seem equally plausible. In the end, he succumbs to a strange fatalism. He concludes murder. Macbeth here delivers an unheard monologue. “Come what, come may. Time and the hour run through the roughest day.” Even though the others see him, and he speaks aloud, he is unheard. He gazes square at Banquo, who yet neither hears nor reads on his lips Macbeth’s surrender to the impious suggestions of his heart.
The King proclaims “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.” The king says this as he is about to repeat the very same mistake. Enters Macbeth. The king proceeds to shower favors upon Macbeth. Macbeth accepts all with a gracious speech. But just a moment later delivers one not so gracious. “Stars, hide your fires. Let not light see my dark and deep desires.” Both Banquo and Macbeth have been enthralled by the witches with their own ambivalence. Only, Macbeth’s share, deplorably for him, greatly exceeds Banquo’s. Both in ambivalence and kingship.
In a play about murder, ambivalence cannot be imagined to have a place. Yet, Patrick Stewart as Macbeth is both all murder and all ambivalence. And Goold’s Macbeth communicates the divide deep in the heart of a figure who is outwardly firm evil conviction.
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