Something Wicked This Way Comes

Archlight Drama Company’s Paul Cullen talks about taking on Macbeth, coming to The Whale on September 9th, 10th & 11th…

Why take on a play that’s over 400 years old? What does a play like Macbeth offer a theatre going audience of 2022?

These were key questions I asked myself when we decided to take on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.

Let’s look at the main theme of Macbeth — the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints.

It finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play, he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her conscience.

In each case, ambition — helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the weird sisters — is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne — Banquo, Fleance, Macduff — and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them.

I think the one thing that jumped out at me, as a director, was how we see aspects of Macbeth in many of our recent and current world leaders. See the parallels for yourself; a successful man, emboldened by enablers and associates, rises to the most powerful role in the kingdom. Whilst in power the whole world can see that with his volatile temperament, his rampant narcissism, his past bad behaviour, his lack of morals, and his duplicity, he is completely unsuitable for leadership. Macbeth will do whatever it takes to stay in power.

As his behaviour becomes more and more erratic, the court and nobles begin to become suspicious and wary, with some abandoning him and going into exile. Many of these former supporters are now only interested in their own political survival. And yet Macbeth still believes he is untouchable and fights right until the end.

He has insulted so many, said so many outrageous things, that there is no turning back. It’s all about self-preservation now. Deny the allegations, destroy his accusers, pile lie upon lie, and tell everyone how the establishment is conspiring against him. With so much political intrigue around the world in recent years, the play Macbeth was just screaming out to be produced.

In recent years, many filmmakers have taken on the challenge of presenting Macbeth to a cinema-going audience and many fine actors have taken on the role of the titular king, including Denzel Washington, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender and Sam Worthington. Macbeth is a magnet for movie-makers. It has obvious attractions: it is short, atmospheric, confronts the nature of evil, and is open to adaptation.

So yes, there are many screen versions of Macbeth for you to enjoy, but there is nothing quite like live theatre to engage an audience. Theatre is alive and three-dimensional with audiences sharing an experience and space with both the actors performing and their fellow audience members. Films and television don’t provide the exact sense of participation and intimacy that live performances have. This sharing of experiences with live actors and audiences is a valuable and necessary component for human connection.

Stories are told by living, breathing people, which cultivates empathy with audiences. Storytelling is one of the oldest human impulses, and live performances provide an outlet for the most powerful manifestation of this impulse. We have a need to tell our stories and to hear other people’s stories.

Everyone has a distinct and unique experience when watching a play – something that can never be replicated. It’s exciting and exhilarating every time…

The relevance of Shakespeare is timeless, and his relevance in the 21st century can’t be denied. He is still popular today because he understands how the human mind works as well as, or better than, any other writer.

He portrays the most complex themes of human life with such ease and prowess; the way Shakespeare depicts murder, ambition, love, revenge, betrayal, and hatred, flames the fire within our souls. Our beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices are constantly challenged by Shakespeare. He created profound and complex characters that are extraordinarily heroic, gut-wrenchingly tragic, irredeemably villainous, hopelessly romantic, and immediately identifiable.

Shakespeare remains woven into the fabric of the English language and will continue to be popular as long as time exists.

Arclight Theatre Company presents William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Paul Cullen, at the Whale Theatre, Greystones from September 9th-11th. Tickets and further information at www.whaletheatre.ie.

 

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