On Friday, Joliette and I went to see a performance of Macbeth, directed by Jamie Lloyd with James McAvoy playing the doomed Scotsman mentioned in the title. It was a disappointing production, much like the only other staging of Macbeth I've seen, which was by the Bell Shakespeare Company in Australia.
This is a real shame, since until someone hands me a cheque for several million pounds, Macbeth will probably remain my favourite thing written in English. I'm deeply concerned that I'll never see a staging that I will actually enjoy.
The problem is the witches and the war. The directors of the productions I've seen want it to be historical fiction that they can move into the present day, generally into some gritty, nebulously defined, modern warfare scenario. Thing is, once you complement your swords with a bit of sorcery, you've bought yourself a genre problem: fantasy.
When men are walking around wearing fatigues and camouflage paint, carrying machine guns and machetes, having three weird sisters magically turn up and actually predict the future is always going to grate. Even if you shun the Call of Duty staging and go for a blasted heath and wither'd sedge approach, the fantasy element will remain problematic for at least three reasons.
First, there's the unaccountable distaste that many people seem to have for the genre itself. Ursula Le Guin observed that Americans seem to be afraid of dragons. No book kept on the fantasy shelf ever wins a Booker: if it does, it gets moved to live with the real literature. My mother is physically incapable of referring to the genre as anything other than "that fantasy crap".
If you dodge this, you could get the fantasy fanboy problem, where everything is cooler if you shove a dragon into it. (John Scalzi skewers this beautifully.) It's quite likely that the reason that there are witches in the play at all is because of King James's affinity for the subject. The "double, double, toil and trouble" bit added to the play by Davenant was inserted as a crowd pleaser. To say it distracts from the story is to understate the case: it's almost as pointless as adding an extended tap dance scene in the middle of Die Hard.
Finally, blessed few people actually believe in the supernatural at all. Even if you aren't prejudiced against the fantastic, to be convinced by the psychological realism of the play, you have to buy in to the reality of the witches. This isn't helped by the sheer difficulty of making magic look magical on the stage. Even Tolkien found the witches difficult to credit.
You can't get rid of them either. You can, if you wish, interpret the dagger and Banquo's ghost as the death throes of his tortured conscience, as mere figments of his imagination. But in the scene where Macbeth first meets the witches, Banquo is there too. Banquo sees and hears them, and takes the lead in interrogating them. Nothing in the play would make sense if they are not real.
But I wouldn't want to. There is much fascinating ground to be explored in the nexus between the supernatural and the psychological. Much good urban fantasy (Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm) and even some epic fantasy (notably the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen R. Donaldson) does this. I am rather happy that the Bard seemed to think so too, but wish he had the foresight to write a novel.
Next week's word: hair.