Staging Macbeth: A Guide for Shakespeare Actors + Directors

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Photo Source: RSC/Richard Davenport. Pictured – Christopher Eccleston performing in Macbeth

From casting decisions to research, acting advice to choreography, these tips from top Shakespeare professionals are essential advice for anyone in the business of staging or acting in Macbeth.

“Something wicked this way comes…” In the world of theatre, some believe Macbeth is cursed and will not even utter the title aloud. But superstitions aside, what are the real secrets behind staging the Scottish Play? We spoke to some of the top Shakespeare professionals working today to find out, including actors, curators, and directors from the Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Box Clever Theatre, and the Shakespeare Ensemble. Here’s what they had to say.

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Iqbal Khan, The Globe

Khan directed Macbeth at the Globe in 2016 and the filmed production for Box Clever Theatre this year.

What sort of research might be useful before tackling Macbeth?
Khan: “Read about the historical context for this play – James VI of Scotland / James I, the new king of England – and note his studies and published material on demonology. This is covered in introductions to the Arden (the best) or Penguin editions of the plays.

How would you approach casting?
“Appropriating these plays is welcome. Use them to reflect on and critique our times. They are powerfully susceptible. Spend the time creating an experience that comes out of love and a passion to engender change. Also, re-gendering might allow wonderful and unusual opportunities to fantastic female actors.”

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It’s a whopper of a text. Would you recommend cutting it down?
“It is your version of the play. Cut as you need, depending on your company size and…identify why you’re doing it. For example, how do you want to represent the supernatural? Or how much of the warlike strategy do you want to ‘suggest’? Various meetings and commentaries in the piece could be shown in action rather than stated.

Macbeth is probably his leanest work and play is very fast. There are various scenes that ‘read’ pretty quickly but may need to breathe in the performance. For example, Banquo’s murder, Lady M’s ‘mad scene,’ the death of the Macduff family and the ultimate fight between Macbeth and Macduff.”

How do you find your concept?
“Inspiration comes from what you care about. This may take time to reflect on. What are your anxieties about where we are? Is there something in the politics of the piece that speaks to us now? How unproblematically good is Duncan as a leader? How can we make assassinating a king feel like striking at a heavenly order for a 21st-century audience? How gothic or real/psychological do we want to go? Do you want audiences to see blood or imagine it?

The more you create out of the particular experiences of your team, the more likely you are to create something unique and urgent.”

Riad Richie, Royal Shakespeare Company

Richie is a seasoned RSC actor and the fight director for Khan’s Box Clever production

What’s your main advice for choreographing Macbeth?
Richie: “The best fights always come from character. You could choreograph a really flashy fight but if it doesn’t feel like the character would move that way it can feel disconnected and take away from the story. If we look at Macbeth, we know he is military-trained and sort of a celebrity when it comes to battles and efficiency. So, when figuring out his moves, I think about how he might decide to kill someone. This way, it’s less about how fight-trained your actors are but more about what choices their character is making – why are they throwing that punch or why are they choosing to stab in the side of the ribs – it’s about the story. So always look at the character first, then take it from there.”

In such a death-heavy production, how do you deal with fights safely?
“That all comes down to applying proper technique in rehearsal and being able to have a dialogue with the actors. If they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, they’ll have that in them for the rest of the run. So, always make sure dialogue is free in rehearsal.”

How do you make your combat unique?
“Hopefully, the director will have a vision and that will be the springboard for how the choreography plays out. Macbeth is staged a lot so ultimately there has to be a reason why you’ve decided to make this play. If you have found something in the text that you want to tell the audience, it’s my job to portray that physically as well. This could be something like grief – how do you show the characters are dealing with grief in the way that they fight, especially in the final act where you have Macbeth, who has nothing left to live for yet is still toying with fate, fighting Macduff who has just lost everything to one person. This is two different types of loss and it’s the choices you make from that.”

Ben Crystal and Antonia Weir, Shakespeare Ensemble

Shakespeare Ensemble is a collective of international artists who perform productions using Shakespeare’s original practices. We spoke with the company’s curator Ben Crystal and actor Antonia Weir to hear about their take on Macbeth, which they toured through Japan in 2019.

Talk us through your approach to staging Shakespeare?
Ben Crystal: “We work out what the process would have been like 400 years ago and what was in the writer’s mind when he was writing. The idea of raising a production in five – or three – days might feel daunting, especially in comparison to the 21st-century rehearsal model, but the practice of raising something so quickly is woven into the DNA of this writing. There is a resonance between the writing and the process that will help you.”

Any advice for a company working with this practice?
Antonia Weir: “Something which is really vital is knowing where your power-points are. Shakespeare’s company knew their space really well because they worked, lived and breathed in it. So, the first thing we did with every new space was to find the ‘power points.’ So, if the king is here, where is he going to get most power and who is going to try and take that from him? We did a lot of work on social and relational dynamics, which meant that when you were in the play, actors worked to shapes and space rather than to blocking. But the staging was not random at all – it was improvised, but within clearly set parameters which the actors understand.”

Top tip for an actor performing in Macbeth?
BC: “We always talk about preparing rather than planning – to play rather than to plan. So, listen and respond to your environment and your audience. And welcome with joyful surprise what can come from that.”

Any other last words on the Scottish Play?
BC: “I don’t believe it’s cursed but I do believe it is incredibly hard work and very challenging, exploring some of the worst excesses of the human condition. It can be very lonely play and a very lonely piece to engage with, so I wouldn’t take it on lightly. It is a dangerous piece of work.”

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