Two recent adventures.
Two weekends ago I travelled up to Cambridge for the annual Procession for Advent at King’s College Chapel. This is less famous than the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (broadcast annually on BBC Radio since 1928), but no less atmospheric. With its giant nave and astonishing fan vaulting the Chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. Beautiful in an imposing, awe-inspiring way. Which is presumably what its founder, Henry VI, intended. He was an acutely spiritual man and had he been alive would not, I think, have approved of the later additions to the Chapel by Henrys VII and VIII – dozens of clunky Tudor Roses stamped on the Chapel walls like giant stone logos, symbols of the burgeoning Royal authority over the Church.
My guide to the Chapel was my father, a former chorister and choral scholar at King’s. He informed me that when he was a chorister the ceiling was so black from the centuries of candle smoke that you could hardly make it out. I couldn’t help but think that despite the exquisite craftmanship of the vaulting, there must have been something profound about gazing up into the unknown dark, unable to capture with your eyes what your mind must believe is there. I always thought that the point of a spire is not to be seen.
The Service itself was spine-tingling, looping and swelling between long silences that seemed to fill every litre of air in the Chapel; from a lone voice in the nave to the grand communal singing of carols. It is the almost elemental relationship between the building, the choir and the congregation that makes this Service so special. At one point the choir sang from behind the closed doors of a side chapel, so that the sound was simultaneously near and far. And then they were right there, in front of you – a very human rag-bag of boys and young men assembled in the apse by Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi, somehow producing this extraordinary music.
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And then there was Macbeth. Specifically, Rupert Goold’s production at The Gielgud with Patrick “make it so” Stewart in the lead role. First of all, let me get something out of the way. This was probably the most uncomfortable theatre experience I have ever had. Sarah and I were perched on the edge of the Grand Circle, on a hard bench of about seven seats (each worth £20). As we were acutely stage-left, we spent the entire performance leaning right forward with our necks twisted seventy degrees just to see half the stage. In their great wisdom The Gielgud had then decided to fly a rig of three of four lights from this point in the Grand Circle, obscuring the view by another twenty-five percent.
OK, I thought, so I can’t see everything, but surely half the enjoyment of Shakespeare is the language? I will simply close my eyes, sit back, and enjoy the poetry… Alas, no! I could hardly make out the pentameters between the constant coughing and sniffling. Whether it was the Stewart effect or the inclusion of Macbeth on this year’s A-Level syllabus, it was clear that this audience was not used to sitting in silence for long periods of time – something they might learn from the congregation at King’s.
Right, rant over. The play. Well, the first thing that hits you is the set, a bleak space surrounded by dilapidated walls and decorated with a rancid-looking basin, rusty radiator and a couple of rickety tables. An old-fashioned car lift with metal grilles is positioned upstage, the main entry point. It could be a communal shower room, torture chamber, prison cell or soup kitchen. It is of course all of these, and in the first scene a makeshift military hospital. Video is projected onto the walls, flickering with dark, vague images. The whole affair is like something out of the new wave of DIY horror films like Saw, Creep and 28 Days Later.
The Weird Sisters, whose lines are thought to be interpolations from a play by Thomas Middleton, are just as protean as the set. They appear variously as nurses, cooks and waitresses. In fact they seem hardly off the stage – ever-present reminders of Macbeth’s motivation and the ultimate vulnerability of his position. It’s hard to fault Patrick Stewart‘s performance. His seven years of exploring Galactic quadrants from the bridge of The Enterprise have clearly paid off – he displays the natural authority and stage presence required by the role, and delivers his lines with surety. Never too loud or too rushed, and with an instinctive sense of rhythm. There’s also something faintly schoolboyish about him, particularly in the scenes with Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth (whose performance was one of the few disappointments). But he’s equally comfortable playing the devilish tyrant and is brilliant in the banquet scene, reducing Mark Rawlings’ Lennox to a whimpering wreck when he snatches an unlit cigarette from his mouth and slowly deposits its contents over his head.
Talking of which, Goold’s production can be noted for its superb reimagining of the banquet scene, during which the ghost of Banquo – whose death Macbeth had ordered – appears twice. As the diners tuck into their first course (Macbeth at the head of the table with his back to us), a bloodied Banquo descends in the lift, steps out and, as Macbeth recoils in horror, leaps onto the table and strides towards him. At which point the lights go out, some video flickers, and the first half’s over – we applaud, then rush to the bar. When the second half starts, rather than continuing from where he’d left off, Goold rewinds the tape, stops and presses play. We’re back at the start of the banquet scene. The table is set, the guests welcomed, and Macbeth repeats his humiliation of Ross and Lennox with military precision. And this time, when they sit to eat, and the King startles from his place, Banquo’s ghost is nowhere to be seen. This bold move of repeating the scene allows us to view the action first through Macbeth’s eyes and then from the perspective of his bewildered court. The effect is astonishing, visceral. We watch the characters perform their actions and say their lines – as much ‘actors’ as Stewart & co. The flickering projections on the tiled walls of the set assume a symbolic status – we watch for glitches in the film, disturbances in the air, the moral malfunction at the heart of the play.
As I type this, my girlfriend, a PhD student at The Globe Theatre, informs me that Macbeth was probably performed for James I of England (VI of Scotland) at Hampton Court and that Shakespeare may have intended the character of Banquo to represent the ‘true’ Stuart line of Scottish rule. In Act IV the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of eight Scottish kings – the descendants of Banquo. The last in the line carries a mirror. One imagines it being help up to James, ‘the wisest fool’. This political edge is important. Macbeth is a play about kingship – how not to rule. When Macduff is told that his family have been slaughtered, we are watching, waiting for his response. His is true emotional despair, the natural outrage of a good man, and here Michael Feast’s rendition provided one of the highlights of a production that comes highly recommended. Just avoid the ‘cheap’ seats.