The tragic passion of Lady M


IF you want a bit of light relief in these troubled times go and see, Macbeth at the Abbey. There were a lot of young people in the audience last Saturday afternoon. It is not on this year's exams courses but these days, I am told, students are encouraged to go and see a good play just for the hell of it. Thank God, someone has decided that their entire lives should not be points driven.

I did it for the Leaving Certificate with the result that, more than any other Shakespeare play, it is imprinted on my brain for eternity. In hindsight though, in seeking it out last weekend, there was a subconscious need - generated by the times we live in - to understand evil; to see the degeneration of human beings as they allow ambition and power to take them over.

Over the years I have trawled theatres looking for the perfect production; never finding it. The nearest came yonks ago in either Guildford or Richmond where it was pitched in modern times. But there, Lady M. pouring out her guilt, her anxieties and her tortured love for her pitiful husband on a shrink's couch did not work either.

In that production, under hypnosis, she plucked nervously at the air but without any other body movement, the "Out damned spot" bit did not carry the same conviction as when she stalks through the night, on her way to complete dementia. Her words too, did not have the same resonance. You need to look edgy, fearful but trying desperately to hold on to control, for the spot bit. You need to look both powerful and pathetic.

"Hell is murky. . . Fie my lord, fie, a soldier afeared? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? ... yet who would have thought the man to have had so much blood in him."

For me, the draw of that play, is always Lady Macbeth - one of the strongest women created by Shakespeare - and the witches. In Patrick Mason's Abbey production, I think both fall badly short of their potential.

Mason's witches look like a trio of bag ladies on their way to Central Park. Or they could be heading for a cardboard box near Stephen's Green. Or they could be escapees from some early 20th century Bedlam. Their clothes are layers of grey grunge. Their hair is a riot of tumbling, dirty locks, uncombed since the beginning of time. Instead of making you shudder in your seat, instead of creating a picture of three dominant and controlling figures' that will swap your dreams for nightmares, these witches belong more in a circus.

Is there a director alive who has ever created believable witches? None that I have seen and the reason, I think, is that they have never been taken seriously. It seems to prove impossible to create an impressive force in the witches that does not carry the risk of them falling over the fine line into farce.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air", comes across as a jingle that could be Eurovision speak.

What would I do with them? In a present day production, I would turn them into three Rosemary Wests or Myra Hindleys or any other seemingly normal women who have committed the most appalling atrocities and still manage to look just like the rest of us. By giving them the opening lines, Shakespeare wanted them, in no uncertain way, to set the scene for heinous and vile goings on. For that very reason they have to be believable.

Is not the blank stare behind thicklensed spectacles of Rosemary West - with her neatly permed hair - the look that would linger in your mind? Or that of a Hindley, using soft, seductive muttering tones to camouflage her penetrating eyes? The witches should, mouth their words with cold calculation. Any movement should be slow, methodical and economic. Their part in the play is crucial in creating a backdrop of depraved corruption, of selling your soul to the devil. They are the creatures who set the scene for bloody carnage and human debasement. But, in the Abbey, yet again, they fall planets behind the script.

EACH and every set of witches I have seen (some more, some less), implies from the outset, that their broomsticks are behind the nearest tree and they are going to sail into the clouds amid a chorus of cackles. No. No. No. The ravens croaking under the battlements and the thundering, unseasonal elements are plenty in the way of props to act as timers in the play. To be really effective, the witches should just jump on efficient bikes or simply stand in a bus queue; blending with the background. That is realspook.

Lady Macbeth has always been a difficult player for many feminists who see her as a symbol of the universal demonisation of women. Or, they insist, she is just another stereotype of a male imagination who believes that all strong women want to be like men. Not for me. I see Lady M. as one of the most tragic romantics of all time. To me, she is an incredibly strong, passionate woman. However, given her place in a patriarchal society, like many other forceful women, she has opted for a not very bright husband who adores her unconditionally. And like many staunch women as lovers, who are often left on the shelf, she is grateful to him and seeks to gratify his every whim in order to give him the notion of being in charge. The sensuous language suggests they have a terrific sex life.

Again, in Peter Mason's production, Andrea Irvine - usually a splendid actor - is simply not right for the part. She is too young. Her simple dress made of heavy, deep red material is the only attempt to take your attention from her pretty, youthful face and to infuse her character with some degrees of gravitas. Her nightgown, in which she wanders hopelessly and distractedly, is just too damn revealing and Central Park West-ish for the part. Her voice, with its light, high pitched, Northern accent, distracts you and is simply not compelling enough to act out the complexities of the character.

My vision of Lady Macbeth is not of a woman who is ambitious for herself. Her fervour is for her husband but she knows his limitations. She knows that he wants the crown and much more. Long before the play starts she is determined that he should have what he wants. She also knows that if he attempts to achieve his goals, he will make a cock up before he gets going. She tells herself that while he has got the titles of Glamis and Cawdor, she fears his nature is "too full of the milk of human kindness" to fulfil all his ambitions. Also, while he grandiose pretensions "but without the illness that should attend it", he is doomed without her help.

Is there anything more poignant than her appeal to the spirits, to nature or anyone, to help her understand the mind set of a man? Dropping the verse of the text, I think it reads more vividly:

"Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top full of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between the effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, wherever in your sightless substances you wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night and pall thee in the dun nest smoke of hell that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, to cry `hold, hold'."

How many women out there can identify with Lady Macbeth? At least, once in our lives, most women come across one man who they would die for. But as Lady M. found out, to live for them is a bit more complicated.