If your schooling was anything like Tom Fisher’s, who is playing Ross in this new production of Macbeth, you studied the Scottish play in Year 6 for your SATs, in Year 11 for your GCSEs, and again for your AS levels. For me, it was Romeo and Juliet which proved inescapable, which I feel may have been a marginally worse fate. From Hamlet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I feel we’ve all had one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces ruined by being compelled to endlessly reproduce points about nature metaphors and biblical imagery. After suffering such banal experiences of Shakespeare prior to university, it was a small revelation when I started seeing student productions which did new things with the plays.
In light of this, I ask director Georgia Nicholson how she plans to make Macbeth fresh. She tells me she is doing something which ‘no modern production has achieved’—completely removing modern interpretations and dilutions from the play, and firmly placing it back in its ‘true’ setting in 11th century Scotland.
This historicist take on the play is something which the cast seem very keen to play up too. Ben Kybett, who is playing Malcolm, emphasises that Macbeth is set in a world ‘where a king is near divine’—‘There are a lot of really quite intense views on monarchy and primogeniture and patriotism and nationalism. It’s an entirely different world, an entirely different way of conceiving how political and social relations work.’ But can’t these threads still exist in a modern or ‘timeless’ setting? ‘I worry that if you set it in a modern power setting, like Downing Street, these ideas such as the Divine Right of Kings, and guest relations, and soldiering, just won’t really come out.’ Georgia nods in agreement: ‘Yes, I think a lot of the punch comes from the original’.
This method of ‘making it new’ by actually making it really, really old may be radical in that it is decidedly untrendy. From Fascist twists on King Lear at the National Theatre, to 1980s versions of Marlowe’s Edward II here in Oxford, the general trend for directors taking on Shakespeare and his contemporaries seems to be to play with our expectations and experiment with setting.
With the absence of such gimmicks, I ask the director what her vision of a setting so far removed from our own experiences is actually like. ‘We’re in a cold, dark place, especially after the death of the king. We’re in a bizarre place—when it’s supposed to be daylight, it’s actually dark. It’s like a permanent solar eclipse is going on. It’s cold, there are witches coming out of the marshes. So I think, when people say they want to plunge an audience into the setting, we really mean it. It’s going to be like ice water baths. You are literally taken away from Oxford and modernity and electricity.’
This all sounds impressive, but I wonder how it will actually be achieved in a small student production. ‘Aesthetically, it is going to be sparse and cold’, Georgia tells me. I suppose sparseness is quite a budget-friendly direction to take it in really, and probably true to the aesthetic of a cold Scottish castle. ‘A thing that annoys me about traditional companies doing Macbeth is they set them in lavish Elizabethan palaces with red curtains and gold everywhere. Our set will be minimal: we have thrones in the middle of the room, and torches, and not much else. And everything will be in stone and wood.’ The cast will wear woollen clothing which, as the director proudly tells me, has been woven by the costume designer using authentic 11th century techniques, rather than resorting to ‘just something black from Primark’.
The cast seem to have researched their parts extensively, and offer insightful comments on what they will bring to their respective roles. Hannah Chukwu, playing Lady Macbeth, says ‘I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a castle, on your own, not seeing your husband for months because he’s at war. How would you react when he returns? Lady Macbeth is, to me, the most interesting character in the play. Her ‘unsex me here’ speech at the beginning really reveals how she views everything in terms of power relations.’
Will this Macbeth live up to its bold claims? The director jokes that they are ‘doing it better than Braveheart’, no less. If you want to find out, you will have to act quickly, since opening and closing night have completely sold out.
Macbeth will play at St. Hilda’s JdP 28th February – 2nd March.