On the first day of rehearsal, >troche Alexander Burns, the director of Macbeth, instructed the assembled cast and crew to hold hands and say the title of play three times, followed by the words “Hail King,” and ending with one more “Macbeth.” The idea was to summon the spirit of the dead king, honor him, and then release him. This odd ritual was a concession to a long-held superstition among theatre-folk that that saying “Macbeth” in a theatre will lead to an avalanche of bad luck. Many theatre professionals refer to “The Scottish Play” rather than using the title of the show in an effort to stave off the injuries, accidents, and even deaths that allegedly befall productions of the play. By summoning and honoring the spirit of Macbeth, we hoped to lift the curse before it had a chance to do any real damage.
This curse has a few origin stories. Legend has it that Shakespeare used incantations from real witches in the play. One night, some practicing witches attended a performance, took offense at Shakespeare’s audacity, and placed a curse on all future productions, or so the story goes. Another less superstitious version cites the dangers inherent in the production—the text requires complicated sword fights, frequent low lighting, and sometimes trap doors. In the days before contemporary safety precautions, accidents were bound to happen.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in the curse, the specter of it hovers over all productions of Macbeth. Every theatre professional has their own way of dealing with it. The video below shares some the ways in which the Arden’s Macbeth cast wards off evil spirits.
Many scholars agree that one of the chief purposes of the Porter’s speech in Macbeth is to give a much-needed comedic breath to a very dark story. Whether this scene is meant to decrease tension (by injecting some lightness and pausing the story) or increase tension (by the insistent knocking and delaying the discovery of Duncan’s body) is up for debate, >medicine but that it is meant to be humorous is impossible to deny. In the Arden’s production of Macbeth, we wanted to honor this intention, which, for us, meant updating some of the language.
As Bruce Graham, playwright of our upcoming production of Funnyman has said—nothing goes stale faster than comedy. Even Shakespeare is not immune. Much of the Bard’s work is universally comedic—gross-out jokes always kill. But some of his comedy is specific to the time and place for which it was written, and many of the topical references fall flat for contemporary audiences. One of the best examples of this is the Porter’s reference to equivocators: “here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale.” Shakespeare here alludes to the infamous trial of Henry Garnet, recently hung as a traitor. While Shakespeare experts might know that this trial was likely on the minds of the Jacobean public, for most contemporary audiences, the word is unfamiliar and the reference impenetrable. Thus humor is lost.
When director Alex Burns and Chris Mullen, who plays the Porter, started working on this scene, they began with the text. After a few times through, Chris asked if he could try to change the text a little bit to make it more his own, and Alex enthusiastically agreed. They wanted to honor the spirit of the Porter scene while ensuring that the jokes weren’t obscured by the language or the distance between our world and Shakespeare’s. Together, Alex and Chris played around with language, letting Chris improvise using contemporary equivalents for some of the characters the Porter mentions. He went very far in some cases—at one point, a stock-broker awaited admittance to hell. Shakespeare’s equivocator became a lawyer, because, in the words of Chris Mullen “lawyers are always funny.” After a few rounds of improvisation, Alex and Chris set the text, using the cast as a test audience to see what was funny and what fell flat (see below for an example). They continued to refine over previews before landing upon what you saw in the performance. In the end, the essential beats of the Porter’s speech remain, as does the subject matter, and even some of the words.
Often in Shakespeare’s day, characters like the Porter were the specialty of clowns, who were allowed freedom to play with the audience—to go off script and improvise. Here was the audience’s much relished chance to interact directly with the performers. How much those performers talked back is still debated. Many scholars believe the role of the Porter to have originated with Robert Armin, the prolific clown of Shakespeare’s company, who was known for his intelligent humor, and is often credited with the complex philosopher-fool characters of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including the Fool in King Lear and Feste in Twelfth Night. Armin’s portrayal of the Porter—filled with topical references and perhaps even imitations of public figures—would have had audiences rolling in the aisles. He had the advantage of speaking the same language as his audience. We wanted to give Chris and our audiences the same opportunity by honoring the spirit of Shakespeare’s text and his favorite clown.