Macbeth, Equivocation and the Gunpowder Plot

Blog post written by Shannon Murray, publicist for our production of Macbeth. Shannon is a Professor is the faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The Gunpowder Plot’s characters. From BBC Website.

The story of which Macbeth is based was not recent history for Shakespeare.  The King Macbeth of legend was to have lived in the 11thcentury, but Shakespeare may have been alluding throughout the play to one of the most notorious events of his own time: the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

That plot involved a conspiracy of Roman Catholic supporters who managed to tunnel under the Palace of Westminister (now the English Houses of Parliament) and plant an impressive  cache of explosives before they were discovered just a day before the planned explosion.  Their target was King James (the 1st of England and 6th of Scotland).  James, by the way, believed himself to be descended of Banquo, and he also loved the theatre (but preferred short plays) and believed and wrote about the dangers of witchcraft, so this play was right up his royal alley.

As you can imagine, the discovery of the plot before the attack could happen was heralded as a delivery by God; even to this day, children across England – as I did when I was a little (Catholic!) girl in London – celebrate the day by carrying stuffed “Guys” from door to door demanding “a penny for the guy.”  (Well, when I was a kid, it was already “a sixpence for the guy,” so I imagine it’s now a pound.)  At the end of the night all the “Guys” are thrown on massive bonfires to celebrate – even 400 years later – what would have been Renaissance England’s 9/11.

The “Guy” the children are talking about is Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators and focus of sensational trials that were the talk of England for years after.  Tried along with Guy Fawkes was Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest who was especially noted for his ability to answer a question from his inquisitors with equivocation.  To “equivocate” means to speak  doubly, to say one thing and have it taken two ways, or even to speak in a way that will be deliberately misunderstood.  Garnet would not lie, but neither would he speak plainly.

So when Macbeth’s Porter welcomes a variety of people through Hell’s Gate, and one of them is an “equivocator, that could swear on both the scales against

either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,”  Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would get the reference: he’s talking about Father Garnet.  That event was as familiar and fresh for them as 9/11 would have been for New Yorkers.

But of course, that’s not the only example of equivocation: the whole play depends on those great equivocators, the three weird sisters, who can speak the truth and lie at the same time.   It is true that Macbeth will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, but Macbeth thinks that’s a good thing for him: the witches know it isn’t.  And throughout the play, what one speaks and what one means are not the same.   The play explores political equivocation.

 So Macbeth is about distant Scots history, and it may flatter some of James’s preferences: but it is also a very topical play, one that reminds Londoners of how close they came to disaster and of the sensational trials that followed: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, / The gunpowder, treason and plot; / I see no reason why gunpowder treason / Ever should be forgot.”

Of course, more recently Guy Fawkes has been resurfacing as the face of “Anonymous” and of the Occupy movement. I wonder what Shakespeare – and the Porter – would have made of that.

Props

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Malcolm, Ross and Duncan use practice props at a hot July rehearsal

Props: short for properties.  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “A theatrical property, commonly referred to as a prop, is an object used on stage by actors to further the plot or story line of a theatrical production. Smaller props are referred to as “hand props”. Larger props may also be set decoration, such as a chair or table.”

While (I suppose) you can stage a show that features actors on a black empty stage and depends entirely on dialogue and emotion, it would be pretty boring.  One of my favourite aspects of producing a show is finding and creating props: it demands creativity, thinking outside the box, and if you’re an amateur group, borrowing, scrounging and making do.

So what props does Macbeth need?  Well, for starters, there are numerous battles, murders, and fights, so there must be weapons, shields, knives and blood (about which more later.)  This production of Macbeth has been fortunate to have a connection to an expert on period weapons and fighting techniques so we have weapons ranging from pikes and daggers to broad axes and bows.  One of the highlights of the show will be a sword fight between Macduff and Macbeth in the final scene.

There is a banquet scene in the play that demands formality – but we’re playing this out of doors.  Four picnic tables have been brought in to join the one in the park and each will be fitted out with a tablecloth, pewter or clay vessels, and baskets and bowls of food.  And, because this play is being staged to encourage audience participation, 24 attendees at each show will sit at four of the picnic tables and drink something potable while Banquo’s ghost haunts Macbeth.

Later in the show the audience will pick up tree branches to carry Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. It is the props team’s job  to get enough tree branches for an audience of 100 to join the cast in the march on Macbeth’s castle.

One of the more challenging aspects of props for this show are the ingredients for the witches’ cauldron, not to mention the cauldron itself.  It is a credit to the director that this scene, which could easily descend to farce, will not.  We’re still looking for some items: anyone out there have a wolf’s tooth or a shark’s stomach?

Earlier I mentioned blood. One person has taken on the task of coming up with several recipes for blood: blood for the battle casualties (which can be left in from one show to the next), blood for daggers and hands, and blood for clothes that will need to be cleaned.  Experiments are proceeding with poster paint, finger paints, cocoa, peanut butter, dish soap, but not corn syrup (a component of many recipes) as this may attract ants and would require thorough cleaning between shows.

When you watch the show, you will hardly be conscious of the hundreds of props, but without them, many a scene would not unfold with such drama and realism.

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Swords from an earlier ACT play will be cleaned up and reused in Macbeth.

Weather report

 
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

September Clouds in Cotton Park, 2011

These are the opening words of Macbeth, spoken by a witch.  The idea strikes terror in the heart of a producer of an outdoor performance.

Performance nights are September 6-8 and 13-15, and it is hurricane season on the eastern seaboard. While few hurricanes have hit Prince Edward Island directly, Juan, the most severe in decades, touched down on September 29, 2003.  Irene sent a day of heavy rain followed by a day of high winds to the Maritimes on August 28 and 29 last year; I know, I was driving my motorcycle through it!

We have made allowances for thunder, lightning or a hurricane.   We have scheduled two “storm dates” on the Sundays, September 9 and 16.  Should a show be cancelled, there will be posts on this blog and announcements on local radio stations.   In case of light rain, wear rain gear and waterproof shoes. We will not be cancelling a show for rain alone. But pity the poor costume crew who will be drying and cleaning costumes before the next show!

 

In the next scene, two witches offer winds to the other, to lay a curse upon a sailor, but the first witch replies: “I myself have all the other, And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know….Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost.

Wind is a fact of life on PEI, so there will be no cancellations for wind alone. The actors are already aware that they have to use their “outdoor voices” for this show and speak over inattentive audience members (surely not!), traffic noise (this is an urban park), or the wind.  The director has also ensured that characters will be heard, by casting Docents who will lead the audience to positions where they will be best able to see the action and hear the play.

 

How has the weather been to us so far?  Only one rehearsal has been rained out: our first, the walk through, on June 9, which was supposed to be an aid to  set, costume and props teams – not to mention the actors – of what to expect in staging this outdoor show.  Since then, to the consternation of farmers and the joy of tourists and beach goers – PEI has had a drought.  So every rehearsal has been on-site in Cotton Park.  We have back-up locations reserved in case we have to move indoors, but so far have only used them that one time.  Please do not invoke the Island curse, by saying, “we’re going to pay for this.”

“It will be rain to-night,”  is Banquo’s last line, before he is assaulted and (plot spoiler…) murdered.  It  is not one of Shakespeare’s more memorable lines, but surely often quoted.

Just not on show nights, please.

 

Thanks to Shannon and Richard for suggesting quotes.

Written by Bunty, the producer.

T-shirts anyone?

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Help us advertise Macbeth in Cotton Park, Stratford.

ACT (a community theatre) often has T-shirts printed of its shows. Why?  First, they’re great souvenirs for cast and crew.  Second, if the producer does it early enough, they are effective mobile advertising posters.  The director and producer encourage those who have them to wear them as often as they can, and show them off to friends and the curious.  Third, a producer can make a tiny bit of extra money for the show.

If you look at an earlier posting on this blog, you will find the poster we will be using for advertising Macbeth. Our talented graphic designer, Christina, took the poster and adapted it for three colour printing on black apparel. The result is what you see here, though the green type in the lower right will be a brighter green. We will be ordering short sleeved T-shirts, long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatshirts.

To ensure a commitment to paying for the shirt when it comes in, we ask for a $10 deposit.  The final cost of the shirts will be, respectively, in the range of $12, $15 and $20.  We round the price up to the nearest dollar and the spare change goes into the production’s revenue.

This time we will be ordering a few extra T-shirts in a range of sizes for sale to the general public.  Are you interested?  If so, but want to guarantee a shirt of the type and in the size you want, you have to act fast.  The size charts are below. Women’s T shirts have a narrower sleeve and a shorter length but are the same width under the arms.

To pre-order a shirt, just post a comment on the blog by midnight Sunday, July 22, and I’ll get back in touch with you on Monday morning.

Sweatshirt  Small Med Large XL 2X 3x

Width          20      22    24      26  28 30

Length         26      27    28      29  30 31

Sleeve         33      34    35      36  37 38

T-shirt or LongSleevedT 

          S M L XL 2X 3X 4X 5X

Width 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32

Length 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35

How to generate an early buzz

30 some readers formed a huge circle

Stratford Town Hall reading of Macbeth, February 2012

How to generate early buzz…

ACT (a community theatre) often offers its members and the general public a venue for reading a play.  We’ve held them in the back room of a pub, and around a table in the local volunteer centre, among other places.  The people who attend take turns playing a role, and the moderator switches the readers and roles every so often to keep it interesting for everyone.

Early on, we decided to stage an open reading of Macbeth – seven (7) months before the show and six (6) weeks before auditions were planned. The Town of Stratford allowed us to use its largest meeting room, and we advertised the reading in social media and listed it in the local arts and entertainment newspaper, The Buzz www.buzzon.com/

About 35 people attended, many of whom would later audition – even though the reading was not an audition. Before the reading started, we took memberships in ACT (not a requirement of attending), collected names and emails, and handed out copies of the revised script.   We set the room up into a huge circle of tables and chairs. To start the evening, the producer explained the timing and venue of the upcoming production (see the ABOUT page of this blog), the director introduced the changes he had made to the play to suit the outdoor venue, and two professors from the University of Prince Edward Island spoke about Macbeth and the reading of Shakespeare’s texts.

The reading allowed the director to gauge how long it would take to present the revised text, and it allowed the production team to get contact information, not just for auditions but for other volunteer tasks.

A great time was had by all, and folks willingly pitched in to reset the room as we had found it.

Director, Terry Pratt, explains changes to the script and characters

Listening to the Director as he explains changes to the script

Selected photos from the reading by Deborah Mutch are viewable on ACT’s facebook page: ACT (a community theatre)

Macbeth at the Movies

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The best way to see any of Shakespeare’s play is, of course, in the theatre – even if that theatre is a park in PEI.  But film makes the plays accessible to a wider audience, which is not a bad thing.  Keep in mind that, in the first weekend of the release of Laurence Olivier’s film Richard III, more people saw that film than had EVER seen the play on stage in the 350 years before.

 

 

 

Macbeth has not been a favourite for the big screen, at least not compared to the multiple versions of Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Orson Welles produced, directed, and starred in his own production in 1948: the high point was the exciting and sudden advance of Birnam Wood – the low point was disastrous Scottish accents.  Welles had also directed a remarkable all black cast in a Haitian “Voodoo” Macbeth with the Mercury Theatre in 1936 (some of which had been recovered and can be seen on YouTube).  Roman Polanski directed his version soon after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family, and the result is a version even darker than Shakespeare’s dark play.

 

 

 

On the small screen, though, some remarkable theatrical performances have been captured for posterity.  Ian McKellan and Judy Dench are still my favorite Macbeths, in a wonderfully pared down and psychological version directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  More recently, and just out on DVD, is Patrick Stewart’s terrifying Stalin-like dictator: and for a man in his 70′s, Stewart is amazingly fit.  (The Weird Sisters – the witches – in this performance, by the way, are nurses, a terrifying twist.)

 

 

 

But some of the best things to watch are adaptations of Macbeth: a mobster remake in Men of Respect, James MacAvoy’s Macbeth as ambitious chef in Shakespeare Retold, Sam Worthington’s drug-addled nightclub Macbeth, and Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Macbeth in Throne of Blood.  And when you’re tired of all the blood and death, try the parody version from The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged.  (Many of these are available at That’s Entertainment!)

 

Contributed by Shannon Murray, publicist for ACT’s 2012 production of Macbeth in Stratford PEI.

 

The Curse!

Ian Byrne as the young soldier initially has the better of Macbeth, played by Richard Haines. This is their first fight rehearsal with shields and batons. Later swords will replace the batons.

You may have heard that this play is cursed. It is an old stage tradition that one does not say the word “Macbeth” unless one is speaking it during the play; actors will instead call it “Mackers” or “The Scottish Play.” The tradition suggests that it is particularly bad luck to speak that name in the theatre, though some especially superstitious souls will refuse to say it no matter where they are. If one does accidentally say “Macbeth,” there are various ways to counteract the curse, a favourite of which is to leave the theatre, recite any line from a Shakespeare Comedy (Midsummer Night’s Dream, another drama with supernatural elements, is a favorite choice) and then return.

But how did this idea of a curse come about? The origins are unclear: there are stories of injuries and deaths associated with the play – after all, there are a lot of murders – though it is by no means clear that mayhem follows this play more than any other. One suggestion is that since evil spirits are actually invoked in the play, perhaps they are interfering in the affairs of the actors, as the weird sisters do in the Macbeths’. (Our publicist loves that probably apocryphal story that, in one early performance of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, the actors were surprised to find one too many devils on the stage!) Another is that some injuries might be the result of particularly strenuous swordplay at the end of the play, or that since much of the play is to take place in the dark or in fog, accidents could follow from poor visibility.

Our own belief is that the accumulation of anecdotes surrounding this curse is merely the result of awareness. Because actors are conscious of the curse, they will look for, remember and pass on any unlucky incidents that happen through a run of Macbeth, whereas they may ignore a stubbed toe or broken nose during Hamlet rehearsals.

Whatever the case, do remember that actors can be very superstitious creatures, (though not ours!) and if you do speak the name of the Scottish play, you may make someone unhappy. So, like Edmund Blackadder, it’s best not to say “Macbeth”  – a least more than once.

Rowan Atkiinson as Black Adder

Here’s a link to the YouTube comedy routine by Rowan Atkinson:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h–HR7PWfp0