More Than Blood & Gore

Working the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff last night at the Popells, my wonderful hosts (and We Players supporters–Andy is Board President): Their son Isaac meets us with his own nerf swords and shows us a thing or two in an impromptu hackfest. It’s a good thing our thanes don’t have Isaac to contend with! As we go to work in the evening light, Isaac sets himself up with popcorn and blankets and a big comfy chair behind a plate glass window to watch us work outside in the courtyard.

We begin with swords made of pvc and foam pipe insulation, light and relatively harmless, going through each move, each impulse, very slowly, stopping to fix anything that feels uncertain or unmotivated, and speed it up by degrees, eventually switching over to the broadswords made of steel.

My father loved the phrase “Lay on, Macduff!” It was one of a small collection of phrases (Life’s Like That; Goddamn Bastards; That’ll Tighten His Sphincter; Bongo, Bongo, Bongo and so on) that could serve almost any occasion. My son Reilly, who did Shakespeare with Ava Roy when they were teenagers, was a member of a Very Young Company (they ranged in age from 4-7 when it began) that played every year to hundreds of amazed adults after the mainstage show, outdoors at the Mount, the home of the young Shakespeare & Co–and the only scene they never missed was the beheading of Macbeth.

“Turn, Hellhound, Turn!”

Violence is great for getting audiences. Every action film producer knows this, as did the King’s Players in 1600. But Shakespeare always wants to know what’s under the surface. What led to this? How can we find out more about a character from the way he or she dies? Shakespeare knows that when the audience is at their most focused it is a good time to throw some curve balls about the riddle of the human psyche–and the moment of death is one last chance to find out after all what is going on here!

In Shakespeare, death and violence are marked and felt. Ava is really good at underscoring this in her work with the Weyard Sisters, for instance, who are always super aware of each death and always mark it in some ritualized way.

Our colleague, Jamie Lyons, was watching us work on the scene in which, to convince her husband against his will to kill the King, for whom she seems to feel some terrible ancient hatred, Lady Macbeth enacts the killing of her own innocent baby. She is very specific in these few lines:

“I have given suck and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me-
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash’d the brains out had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

She knows what she is talking about; she’s nursed a male baby. Her own, presumably. It’s one of the mysteries of the play. In our version, she enacts the sequence physically, giving suck, plucking him away from her breast and smashing his invisible head against the stone courtyard floor. She hits a nerve; the next thing we know, Macbeth is “settled” to do the terrible deed.

When the murderers kill Lady Macduff and her fine, intelligent child, we have them also smashing her baby in the same way that we have seen Lady Macbeth mime the act in the earlier scene.

Jamie suggested that one of the Weyard Sisters could come and somehow sanctify the spot on the ground where the invisible baby is killed, after the scene’s end. And so it goes, bit by bit, we all participate in stringing these moments, images, experiences into a fabric that, if we’re diligent and lucky, hang together and give us more than blood and gore.

— John Hadden
Associate Artist and Co-director of Macbeth at Fort Point, 2014