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Now and thane

The Sunday Times, 16th February 1992, Heather Neill

The English Shakespeare Company is about to hit the road again. The ESC, founded by the Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington, director and leading actor respectively, is committed to touring, especially Shakespeare, on the grounds that the plays are “common coin” and should be accessible to everyone. It has been rewarded with a string of awards, an increased Arts Council grant and new sponsorship from IBM.

Fans of the company will know what to expect of the latest production, ‘Macbeth’, with Pennington in the title role: an unsentimental, de-mystifying reading, emphasising political motivation and, possibly, contemporary parallels. Last year the ESC ‘Coriolanus’ resonated with the fall of dictators in Eastern Europe; its earlier ‘Henry V’ featured chauvinistic Sun-style slogans reminiscent of the Falklands era.

Rehearsals for ‘Macbeth’ began last month, in a freezing cavernous studio off the old Kent Road. Newly returned from Hamburg, where he has been artistic director of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus for the past two and a half years, Bogdanov has brought with him his assistant director Kate Beales.

He has firm ideas about what the play has to say to a modern audience, but the expression of them is a matter for experiment. From the first he makes it plain that we are in a world of political pragmatists: Duncan is a clever strategist who underlines his authority by naming his eldest son, Malcolm, as his successor: Banquo is not blameless, and could have told what he must have suspected after Duncan’s murder; Malcolm is a schemer who knows how to save his own skin. Bogdanov’s most radical innovation is that Lady Macbeth (Jenny Quayle) is to be one and the same as the First Witch.

As they begin to work on their first scene together, Pennington and Quayle emphasise the humanity of their characters. This is a close, physical marriage, the partners interdependent. As Quayle says, “The audience should feel that, God forbid, any of us could be in this situation.” But Bogdanov is anxious to avoid a Mr-and-Mrs-Macbeth-chatting-at-home scene. He uses the word “fiend” to describe Lady M; Quayle looks shocked.

A fortnight later, differences between director and actors are being resolved. Pennington and Quayle are working on the premise that the Macbeths have lost a child and that this experience has left a residue of bitterness and anger. Macbeth is now the only outlet for Lady Macbeth’s self-fulfilment. “Their process of argument, the power play, is recognisable by any member of the audience,” says Pennington.” It is, in that sense, a simple play to understand. You have to make the leap to the result of that process being murder.”

By now there has been one significant change: Quayle is no longer to play the First Witch. As work began on the Apparition scene, she felt the doubling to be untenable: “It was like two skis going in different directions.” Bogdanov is disappointed, and he is still considering making a connection between the two characters, perhaps an indication that Lady M belongs to the same cult as the witches.

By the third week Beales has worked out a sequence with the Witches in which they begin as bag ladies, more or less modern in dress but reminiscent of female outcasts in medieval or Tudor times. They utter the “When shall we three meet again” dialogue in the most meaningful way I’ve ever heard. This isn’t an incantation; they are making an appointment.

Only two weeks to go to the first night, and there are still many decisions to be made. Some are technical. Bogdanov wants something more flexible than a tall tallescope, a machine fro rigging lights. The specially designed ‘Macbethoscope’ is nearly as tall as the flies, capable of bearing several people while moving on wheels and swivelling. It looks like a cross between sophisticated window-cleaning apparatus and a medieval war machine.

The six-week rehearsal period is longer than usual for the ESC, but ‘Macbeth’ forces a consciousness of urgency. It moves, says Bogdanov, inexorably, “like an arrow”. Even the experienced Pennington is sometimes weary of the claustrophobia of the piece. “It is like a skin disease. The good things of life become especially important. I find myself longing for ginger-bread and cappuccino.”

For the ESC, there is no such thing as relaxing into a run. Even when ‘Macbeth’ is second nature to play, there will be adjustments to make: theatres may hold a couple of thousand or only a few hundred, stages vary and may not be able to accommodate all the technical inventions, and there is the anxiety of ensuring that props, costumes and equipment arrive in the right place at the right time. Touring is not a tourist activity.

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