Among actors, Macbeth has always been considered an unlucky play, and not without reason. When Olivier played the title part in 1937, he narrowly escaped death when part of the scenery collapsed and demolished the chair in which he had just been sitting. In a 1942 production starring and directed by John Gielgud there were no fewer than four fatalities. Two of the witches, the actor playing Duncan and the designer all died in the course of the run. The set was then repainted and used for a light comedy, whereupon the lead actor in that production also died.
Fortunately, nothing so serious blighted Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, first seen at Stratford in late 1974, which transferred to London in early ’75. But it was not without incident. Nicol Williamson, playing Macbeth to Mirren’s Lady Macbeth, refused to rehearse. ‘I think his plan, if there was such a thing, was to hold back until the first night and then just let it explode,’ Mirren recalls. There was no love lost between the principals: he was ‘just horrible to me… he hated me,’ she says now. I don’t know – perhaps they had smoothed over their differences by the time of the London run – but I saw the London version twice, both times in a state of heightened emotional awareness brought on by my having developed a massive crush on Ms M, and I wasn’t conscious of animosity between the leads so much as chemistry of a very different kind. One felt this was a characteristically modern reading, playing up the sexual co-dependence of the Macbeths’ marriage.
The idea is surely in the play, and it has a long history. In 1884, Sarah Bernhard upset straight-laced Victorian critics by dwelling on the lady’s ‘insidious erotic influence’. AC Bradley railed against this interpretation in his 1904 lectures on Shakespeare:
... there is not the faintest trace in the play of the idea occasionally met with, and to some extent embodied in Madame Bernhard’s impersonation of Lady Macbeth, that her hold upon her husband lay in seductive attractions deliberately exercised. Shakespeare was not unskilled or squeamish in indicating such ideas.
Yet ‘seductive attractions’ were precisely what Mirren’s Lady Macbeth used to further her ambitions. Her body would be the reward for an obediently performed murder. Associations between sex and violence were established from the beginning. When we first saw Lady Macbeth, reading her husband’s letter (I.v), she held it in her right hand while toying with a small dagger in her left. Then, as she invoked the ‘Spirits | That tend on mortal thoughts’, inviting them to ‘unsex me here’, she used the dagger to draw blood from her arm. The lines of soliloquy that follow were carefully delivered: ‘Come to my woman’s breasts | And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers…’
When Williamson entered, Mirren threw herself with unequivocal affection into his arms, sensing ‘the future in the instant’. Greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’, Williamson held her for what seemed like minutes before breaking the embrace to speak the next line. Her conversational tone at ‘Your face, my Thane’ troubled some critics (‘she giggles, as if he had just seen the gas bill’ – Wardle) but suggested an easy relationship between them as he entrusted ‘this night’s great business’ into her ‘dispatch’.
Act I scene vii, where Macbeth prevaricates before the murder of Duncan, seems to me highly charged with eroticism, even on the page, as Lady Macbeth taunts her husband with lack of manliness: ‘From this time | Such I account thy love.’ Macbeth declares he will ‘do all that may become a man’, to which she responds, ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. Williamson and Mirren intensified their intimacy at this point.
There was symmetry between I.v – Macbeth, back from the war, greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’ – and II.ii, as Mirren received Williamson with a jubilant cry of ‘My husband!’ and an ecstatic hug after he’d killed Duncan.
In this production the sexual dynamics of the marriage were exposed to view, so that Lady Macbeth’s decline began at the point where the frisson goes out of the relationship. As Irving Wardle wrote of the Stratford production, ‘Up to the coronation, Miss Mirren is sex triumphant; afterwards, her collapse begins from the sense of being sexually discarded.’ To be precise, no sooner has Lady Macbeth entered ‘as Queen’ (III.i) than Macbeth orders her out of the room to plot the murder of Banquo without her aid. In III.ii she asks ‘why do you keep alone, | Of sorriest fancies your companions making?’ At the exhortation to ‘sleek o’er your rugged looks’, Mirren offered her embrace to Williamson, but engrossed in his own thoughts, he ignored her, and she dropped her arms.
And yet this kind of reading can be overdone. Bernard Levin, in a column written around this time, made a right charlie of himself by obsessing about Ms Mirren’s mammaries. In I.vii, as in I.v, Lady Macbeth references her breasts; but the context as before is that of breast-feeding:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Coleridge’s gloss on these lines is of interest:
… though usually thought to prove a merciless and unwomanly nature, [this passage] proves the direct opposite: she brings it as the most solemn enforcement to Macbeth of the solemnity of his promise to undertake the plot against Duncan. Had she so sworn, she would have done that which was most horrible to her feelings, rather than break the oath…
The thematic associations of maternity, fecundity and dynasty have to be present. After all, the original prophecy that drives the plot is that Macbeth shall be king, but Banquo’s issue, not Macbeth’s, will later occupy the throne.
But if I had suspicions that the production was emphasising one aspect of the play at the expense of others, I couldn’t resist the many memorable details in Mirren’s performance:
- After Duncan’s murder (II.ii), using a napkin of purest white, Mirren tried to wipe off the blood but she was unable to clean either her own hands or Macbeth’s; they left the stage still bloodstained.
- In II.iii Lady Macbeth faints. Nunn had devised some business to motivate this. Duncan’s catafalque was brought down the stage and Mirren, confronted with the result of their crime, perhaps reminded of her ‘father as he slept’, broke down under the strain. Her hysterical outburst was interrupted by Williamson, who took her by the shoulders, turned her round and led her to the door.
- In the banquet scene (III.iv), after Macbeth had addressed a stool for minutes on end, a white-clad Mirren rushed to sit on it. (The entire production was in blacks and whites, as if viewed in silhouette.) Afterwards, fighting for control, she moved compulsively about the room as she reacted to Macbeth’s raptness in the face of Banquo’s ghost, at one point clinging to the back of a chair to regain her self-possession.
- In the sleepwalking scene (V.i), the Doctor and Gentlewoman treated her as a disturbed child implicated in a business she didn’t understand. Marvin Rosenberg summarises:
Mirren wore a stark white robe as she acted out the movement to her desk, from which she took her paper. She turned half-front as she began to speak, still seated, working hard at her hand washing. She seemed to lick or spit on a handful of robe which she rubbed fiercely against her palms. She was wildly urgent in the scene, her anxiety-ridden voice returning to the tones of childhood.
Nunn’s aim in the original staging, so he told the company’s historian Sally Beauman, had been to confine the awesome spaces of the Stratford stage, producing ‘a chamber stage within the proscenium’. This was Mirren’s first production after a year of intermittent travelling with the Peter Brook company. In November 1974 she’d had a letter published in The Guardian complaining that the RSC’s expenditure on costumes, sets and staging had become ‘excessive, unnecessary and destructive to the art of Theatre’. I suppose if you’d spent the previous months performing on a bare carpet in African villages and Native American reservations, any of the trappings of European theatre would seem extravagant. Whether as a result of her protests (which were not well received by a company management suspicious of unauthorised contact with the press) or an unrelated design re-think, the production was notably sparser by the time it reached London. No set now, just massive ebony furniture dragged about by black-cowled scene shifters, which seemed to trap the actors within its confines. Williamson by the end was clambering up and down a pile of furniture, like a chimpanzee in a cage, spitting out his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. Irving Wardle listed the changes in his review of the London production:
Gone are John Napier’s heavy ecclesiastical furnishings, the traverse curtain shadow plays, spotlit asides, coronation pageantry, and the witches swinging on chandeliers. In their place, Trevor Nunn bases his production on the naked physical properties of the stage. It is like moving from an Italian cathedral to a primitive Methodist chapel.Macbeth is the shortest of the Shakespeare tragedies. The brevity and speed of the play are astonishing, especially when played, as it was in the 1975 production, without interval in two hours flat. Lady Macbeth's sinewy, unmetaphorical language, so often rooted in the colloquialisms of Shakespeare’s day, was a perfect fit for the unforced style of verse delivery that Mirren had learnt from her RSC mentors. Although histories of the play usually give preference to Nunn’s later production with Judi Dench as the Lady, I will always cherish this one.
Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company (1982)
AC Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
ST Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Raysor (1930)
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers (1987)
Bernard Levin, ‘Bringing the followers of Thespis back into the temple’, Times, 3 December 1974
Helen Mirren, In the Frame (2007)
Helen Mirren, ‘Stage set for an empty pageant?’ [Letters], Guardian, 13 November 1974
Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (1978)
Irving Wardle, ‘A Christian tragedy’, Times, 30 October 1974
Irving Wardle, ‘Macbeth’, Times, 6 March 1975