I believe that any production of a play by Shakespeare needs to begin with a thorough textual investigation. Nine times out of ten, of course, that investigation will lead to ‘discoveries’ – about the characters, situation, politics and the world of the play – which other people have made before. After all, one is treading a well-trodden path. It’s widely known that Lady Macbeth talks of having given suck, and yet we have no evidence of there having been a young Macbeth. There are many academic interpretations of this, some of which dig in to the history of the real life Macbeths and the possibility of Lady Macbeth having had children from a former marriage. However, in terms of the world of the play, the only information that we have is that the Macbeths had a child once but don’t appear to have one now. This means there is a ‘lost’ child that we need to factor into our understanding of the play in some way.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that, by contrast, the character of Banquo does have a child, a son, and appears to be a sensitive father, and when Macbeth is promised the crown, he that is told Banquo will be the root and father of a line of kings. Right from the start of the play children and parental status begin to make their presence felt. In fact, having started investigating the significance of children within the play, a whole range of other images of children, childlessness, parenting, pushing away of parental compassion, and abdication of parental responsibility begin to present themselves, both within the story and as a backdrop to that story.
From time to time, this process of textual investigation can identify apparently ‘loose threads’ within a play. Sometimes one might be tempted to put that down to a discontinuity (dare I say it a mistake?!) within the writing process, but I’m always at my most excited as a director when I stumble upon something that doesn’t quite add up. Sometimes I find that pulling at one of those loose threads can open up interesting new perspectives, like the moment in which Banquo is killed but his son Fleance escapes. It is arguably one of the most pivotal scenes within the drama as it is the point at which Macbeth’s first major attempt to defy the prophesy, to control his own destiny, to cut Banquo’s line of heirs and successors off, fails.
In this scene, Shakespeare introduces a character out of nowhere. Macbeth has plotted the murder of Banquo very clearly with two murderers earlier in the day. That evening, as the killing is about to be enacted, a third murderer turns up. He doesn’t really explain where he has come from, and is unknown to the original two murderers. All of a sudden we have three murderers instead of two, reinforcements, and yet the plan goes wrong. Fleance escapes. Is this merely chance?
I then became interested in the how the appearance of that third murderer and the saving of Fleance bears striking resemblance to a moment later in the play when another unknown character appears out of nowhere and attempts to intervene in the murder of Lady Macduff and her son, on this occasion failing to influence the outcome. Was this the same person, the same guiding hand at work? And, if so, what did this mean for the wider play?
How do those events connect with the journey of Lady Macbeth through the piece? After Duncan has been murdered and Macbeth has turned the spotlight of his paranoia on Banquo, it’s clear that Lady Macbeth is not sympathetic to his plans and, in particular, is alarmed by the fact that he may intend to kill not only Banquo but also Fleance. The fact that Lady Macbeth is alerted to this, and is clearly arguing that Macbeth needn’t go ahead with these killings, begins to drive a wedge between the couple.
In the version of the play that we have been producing here in Colchester, we are exploring what it might mean if Lady Macbeth, side-lined by her husband as he starts to act alone, were to seek to minimise the on-going bloodletting by intervening in first the murder of Banquo (by sending the ‘third murderer’) and then the murder of Macduff’s wife and children (by sending the messenger).
In the sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth certainly appears to carry the death of Lady Macduff on her own conscience – perhaps the fact that she has not been able to prevent these murders has left her with the blood of Lady Macduff and, in particular, her children, on her hands as well.
So how does this play out in performance? Well, it’s lead to a number of key decisions. We’ve added a textless prologue to the show which places the loss of Lady Macbeth’s child right at the heart of our understanding of her character. We’ve also taken a key decision about the casting of the children in the piece, by getting a single (very young) child actor to play all of the child roles in the piece – young Macbeth (in the Prologue, Fleance, the three apparitions, and young Macduff), with the express intention of making every appearance of a child in the piece connect back emotionally to Lady Macbeth’s own lost child.
It was clear from the outset that this still needed to be the murder-mystery / thriller / power play that we know, but I hope that in foregrounding this less-familiar strand and placing it at the heart of our production we will enrich an audience’s experience of the play.
Daniel Buckroyd’s Macbeth is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, from 2nd – 18th October 2014