We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.
T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
I love this quote from Eliot. Everyone we know has changed since we last met them and it is entirely our fault if we fail to notice. Plays, it turns out, are exactly the same.
Revisiting a great script should be like meeting a stranger. And here, too, it is our fault if we fail to notice what has changed in the play, in us and in the world during the time we’ve been apart. There are great rewards in ignoring a play and then being reintroduced! The danger is in assuming that we know a play’s true and singular meaning, particularly for those that teach drama.
This week I am revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in preparation for our Living Lecture series that is set to tour Perth schools. I will be working with four talented actors – Ben Mortley, Alexandra Nell, Giulia Petrocchi and Nick Maclaine – who will each add their own unique perspective to our version of the play.
Plays are mysterious creatures, great at asking questions and often terrible at answering them. It’s very tempting to reorganise their complex web of ideas into a set of simple themes – tidy, straight-edged and known, universal and unchanging – that can be taught, learned and regurgitated for marks.
I had this in mind last week when I re-read Macbeth. I have worked on this play eight or ten times as an actor and director. One of these was a nine-month tour around Australia in which we played the show 167 times. It is a play whose language comes to my mind without much prompting and whose ideas often feel like a piece of familiar clothing, well worn through use.
And yet coming to it this time, the play feels very different. It is as if the words and ideas have shifted not just in their relationship to me, but to one another. It feels new and strange. I was most struck with the play’s ambiguity. Motivations and ideas that have previously seemed fixed and clear to me seem less so. Other muddy moments have become crystal. Whole speeches feel like new pieces of text, fulfilling very different functions in the story.
The play is full of references to a Christian god, but in this read I rediscovered the deep pagan and animistic roots growing under the play’s Christian topsoil. It is a world of trees that speak, of signs and symbols in nature, of black magic and fortune telling and of spilt blood that can only be satiated with more blood.
I felt the presence of kids keenly this time round. Children, childhood and the desire for family legacy are woven into the drivers of every major character and every significant decision made. I have found a play haunted with lost children and lost childhoods.
The play’s exploration of an evolving mental illness also feels very immediate. Here I feel I have met a more complex and humane story. Macbeth seems a fragile and imaginative soul brutalised by violence. His thoughts turn quickly and easily to ‘horrible imaginings’. His inner world is one of terrible dreams, floating daggers and the psychosis of whispered voices. He is deeply unwell, his mind stung by scorpions, constantly flooded with fear and in the end deadened with by the overload of sensation.
And on this reading gender in the play seems turned on its head: less a fixed set of ideas and more an unanswered riddle. In fact, gender seems like a very shaky construct indeed – an edifice that the characters are fighting to tear down and build anew, much as we are in our world today. Huge gender stereotypes seem to be delivered with a twinkle of dramatic irony, as if the audience realises this simple binary does not and cannot exist. The seemingly gentle and courtly Lady Macbeth is not suspected of her bloodthirsty crimes until it is much too late. The avenging hero of the play, Macduff, is at pains to redefine an emotionally intelligent version of masculinity. Categories like man and woman just don’t seem to cut it any more.
It’s funnier this time round too. I can feel the play’s dark humour breathing through each line. There is an almost joyous life force in Macbeth’s self-awareness of the downward spiral of his life. The blackest of self-mocking humour sits under his decisions to relish the release into rivers of bloody violence and then to fight his fate against the odds. I might be unusual in this, but I find this lightness to be a very loveable trait. Particularly in today’s world, so full of forces beyond our control. It is a gift to find the lightest touch of humour in the darkest of times.
Living Lectures are touring Perth schools through July and August, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the play has changed for all of us. And surely this is the joy of revisiting these great works and why we can keep doing it – we are meeting strangers.