MACBETH Performance History
'The hesitation, the bewildered look, the coming to himself when he sees his hands bloody, the manner in which his voice clung to his throat and choked his utterance...no one who saw it can ever efface from his memory.'
William Hazlitt on seeing Edmund Kean perform Macbeth in 1853.
Although Macbeth was probably performed for King James I at court on 7 August 1606, the earliest recorded performance of Macbeth was at the Globe in 1611. Richard Burbage is believed to have played Macbeth. An Elizabethan astrologer, Simon Forman recorded 'In Macbeth at the Globe 1611, the 20 of April, Saturday, there was to be observed, first how Macbeth and Banquo, two noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth.' Forman goes on to describe the details of the banquet scene, 'The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had bid to a feaste to the which also Banco should have come, he began to speak of the noble Banco, and to wish that he wer there. And as he thus did, standing up to drincke a Carouse to him, the ghoste of Banco came and sate down in his cheir behind him. And he turninge about to sit down again sawe the goste of Banco, which fronted him so, that he fell in a great passion of fear and fury...'
There is an ongoing question over whether the script was later adapted by Thomas Middleton as scenes are described by Forman that contain lines from Middleton's play The Witch. The brevity and pacing of the play in the folio edition suggests either that Shakespeare reworked the piece in performance or that it was reworked at a later date by another writer.
There is also a debate over whether Macbeth was written by Shakespeare to be performed indoors. The play certainly feels like a chamber piece, with a strong atmosphere of darkness. As G.K. Hunter points out, performances at court were quite spectacular, with stage machinery, sound effects, and magical illusions, and Macbeth with its vanishing witches, ghostly apparitions and flying witches could lend itself well to the extravagence of such an evening. There is no doubt that the play also was performed at the Globe and the necessary adjustments for rethinking the production for daylight and a larger stage may go some way towards explaining the apparent brevity of the play, and the confusion over certain scenes, left out of the folio version, yet described by witnesses of the time.
Richard Huggett in The Curse of Macbeth tells of a story attributed to John Aubrey, of the first staging of Macbeth. The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth became ill and an understudy was needed. At very short notice, William Shakespeare was supposed to have taken the part of Lady Macbeth for the first performance before King James.
After the Restoration Sir William Davenant turned the play into semi-musical in 1663 and the witches became dancers and singers. The Davenant version was probably the one seen by Samuel Pepys who described the play in 1667 in his diary as 'a most excellent play in all respects, especially in divertissment, though it be a deep tragedy; which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here and suitable.'
Thomas Betterton restored Shakespeare's text at Drury Lane in 1707. In Cibber's Lives of the Actors is a review of his Macbeth: 'Mr Betterton (although a superlative good actor) laboured under ill figure, being clumsily made, having a great head, a short thick neck, stooped in the shoulders, and had fat short arms, which he rarely lifted higher than his stomach.'
David Garrick in 1744 was applauded for his intensity but not for his scenes with Mrs Pritchard as his Lady Macbeth: JP Kemble likened the dagger scene 'to the butler and the housemaid having a quarrel over the carving-knife.' Garrick was by all accounts a highly chilling Macbeth, and there is a famous story of how when the First Murderer is told by Macbeth 'There's blood upon thy face', that the actor was so convinced by Garrick that he involuntarily replied 'Is there, by God?' Garrick restored some of Shakespeare's original text, but also added some of his own. Macbeth's final dying speech was:
'Tis done! The scene of life will quickly close.
Ambition's vain delusive dreams are fled,
And now I wake to darkness, guilt and horror.
I cannot bear it! Let me shake it off -
It will not be; my soul is clogged with blood -
I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy -
It is too late; hell drags me down; I sink,
I sink - my soul is fled for ever! O - O - (dies)
Sarah Siddons in 1785 fought hard with Sheridan to play the sleepwalking scene without having to hold a lit candle as had traditionally been done before: '...when I urged the impracticality of washing out that damned spot' while having one hand clutching a burning flame.
In May 1849 rival productions of Macbeth on Broadway by William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest led to the Astor Place Riots. The American actor Forrest had an ongoing battle over acting and performance style with the English Macready which began years before when Macready was accused by Forrest of deliberately cueing the audience to applause by waving a handkerchief in a production of Hamlet at Edinburgh. Forrest hissed Macready and their rivalry grew. Forrest blamed Macready for sabotaging his productions with the British critics and causing bad reviews. By the time that Macready arrived in New York to perform Macbeth, Forrest had organised a defamatory newspaper campaign and scheduled a rival production. Macready's Macbeth was interrupted by audience members throwing refuse, rotten eggs and broken seats at the actors. On May 10 an anti-British mob of some 15,000 had gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House. Military troops were called in to quell the riot after the police were attacked and at the end 31 people lay dead or dying. Macready left New York that night, smuggled out in disguise. Forrest never recovered from the damage the incident caused to his reputation. Richard Nelson wrote the play Two Shakespearean Actors about the Macready/Forrest rivalry.
Henry Irving took on the Thane in 1888 and Ellen Terry wrote of her co-star in the final battle 'He looked like a gaunt famished wolf, weak with the weakness of an exhausted giant, spent with exertions ten times as great as those of giants of coarser fibre, and stouter build.'
In 1936 Orson Welles directed a 'voodoo Macbeth' in the Negro Theatre Project of Harlem production set in 19th Century Haiti. Ingmar Bergman in 1948 at Gothenburg City Theatre had a huge tree at centre of the stage from which bodies of hanged men swayed and through the branches the witches clambered.
Godfrey Tearle and Diana Wynard played the Macbeths directed by Anthony Quayle in 1949 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
In 1952 a production of Macbeth starred Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, directed by John Gielgud.
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh starred in Macbeth in 1955 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as a glamorous domestic tragedy directed by Glen Byam Shaw. Olivier said of the Macbeth's relationship 'the interesting part of the play is that the man has imagination and the woman has none. The man sees it all, she does not...there comes a moment in the play when he looks at her and he realises that she can't take it any more, and he goes on and she goes down.' Kenneth Tynan wrote that Olivier's Macbeth 'greets the air-drawn dagger with sad familiarity; it is a fixture in the crooked furniture of his brain.'
Alec Guiness in 1966 at the Royal Court Theatre struggled through a difficult production directed by Bill Gaskill. Lady Macbeth was played by Simone Signoret who wrote in her biography that afterwards she 'woke with relief every day at the prospect of not playing Lady Macbeth.'
Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren also struggled at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in a 1974 Macbeth directed by Trevor Nunn.
However Nunn successfully re-examined the play on a small stage in 1976. This atmospheric and probably definitive production at The Other Place, with a stage area circle marked out and actors seated around the edge on beer crates was played straight through without an interval in order to focus the intensity. Like a Scottish Doctor Faustus, Ian McKellen is metaphysically seduced by the witches. Judi Dench was a hair-raising and chilling Lady Macbeth. As Michael Billington wrote in his review '...these are not monsters but recognisable human beings willing themselves to evil and disintegrating in the process.'
Albert Finney starred as Macbeth in a National Theatre production directed by Peter Hall in 1978. Hall in his diaries wrote of the discovery he made during rehearsals that the intensity of the tragedies, especially Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth, and how they stretch the individual actor to the limit, lies in the way that the actor portraying the part must physically go through the marathon of the performance, 'Each of the tragedies is a microcosm of man's life, full of effort and then exhaustion. So is the actor's performance. It is a metaphor as potent for the life of the individual as the metaphor of the Globe Theatre is for the world itself.'
In 1980 Peter O'Toole infamously played a disastrous Macbeth at the Old Vic Theatre to roundly awful reviews and impromptu laughter from the audience.
Macbeth starring Bob Peck and Sara Kestleman opened in 1982 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre directed by Howard Davies.
Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre directed by Adrian Noble focussed on the couples' lack of children. When Macduff is grieving for his slain family, the line 'he has no children' was referred to Macbeth. Children playing blind man's bluff haunted Macbeth in the banquet scene.
Anastasia Hille in Richard Eyre's 1993 National Theatre production was a very young and childlike Lady Macbeth to Alan Howard's elder soldier.
In 1998 the Piccolo Theatre of Rome presented an Italian adaptation set in contemporary world of street gangs.
Gregory Doran in 1999 directed Antony Sher and Harriet Walter at The Royal Shakespeare Company in a politically saavy production, which drew on Eastern European dictators such as the Ceaucescus as an inspiration for the Macbeths and their cruelty and bloodthirst.
In 2001 at the Globe Theatre, the witches were slapstick clowns.
In 2007 Patrick Stewart was superbly directed by Rupert Goold in the award-winning Chichester Festival Theatre production which transferred to the West End and Broadway.