Last night, I got to see a special screening of the Folger Theatre’s 2008 production of Macbeth (all magic courtesy of Teller — of Penn and Teller). Usually, when I see Macbeth, my focus is on the titular pair, or, barring that, the witches, but, in this production, my attention and sympathies were more with the courtiers than in any other staging I’ve seen.
For whatever reason, I was less wrapped up in the fall of Macbeth and his wife, so I kept thinking about the lives of the people in their court. As the audience, we experience the story as a tragedy, where “vaulting ambition” leads the Macbeths deeper into sin and despair, but, for the court, it must have felt more like being trapped in an absurdist story.
This is, after all, a world where, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and begins screaming and strangling bystanders, them most reassuring lie that Lady Macbeth can come up with is:
Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
He will again be well: if much you note him,
You shall offend him and extend his passion:
Feed, and regard him not.
While she covers for her husband, she anticipates that she’ll need an excuse she can use again, so she invents a persistent madness, but what small comfort that must be to her husband’s retainers, to know that this violence could break out at any moment.
The whole show felt unsettled and unnatural, with a real terror for the people at Dunsinane, who, far from just fearing death, were in a world so addled by evil that you couldn’t even know what to fear. In one scene, two characters recount the strange upending of the world around them:
On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.
And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.
So far, so normal (for the paranormal) I thought. The scene was reminding me of Titania’s “These are the forgeries of jealousy” speech, when she explains how the disagreement between herself and Oberon has upset the natural law. But then, the players went on to say this, which I had somehow missed in previous productions:
‘Tis said they eat each other.
They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes
That look’d upon’t.
I think I missed the next few lines because, really.
Eating each other.
From that point onward, my favorite character was Macduff, who buffeted by tragedy and Malcolm’s pretended malfeasance, just wails “O, Scotland, Scotland!” Instead of worrying about the collapse of Macbeth, this production, more than any other, made me frightened for the country, rather than its king.
(for your enjoyment, here’s the first few minutes of the production I saw)