Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

Macbeth_and_Banquo_encountering_the_witches_-_Holinshed_Chronicles

So, opening night! Wow.

It was unquestionably a success and the majority of the audience loved it, many laughing all the way throughout the show. A play about a play going wrong covers a multitude of sins and, if we are being honest here, there were a few last night, whether it was electric circuits breaking at a moment of supposed pyrotechnic brilliance or the whole lighting system going into disarray, one cannot say it wasn’t interesting backstage. In fact, at times, it was as fraught and kinetic as the action going on in front of the curtain. But, the show must go on and go on it did with everyone, cast and crew, rallying together to ensure that audiences got value for money and left either not noticing or not caring about the gremlins in the hall. In fact the most melodramatic performance came from yours truly backstage, swilling red wine and looking wistfully like some Chekovian heroine waiting for ducks to fly to Moscow. That was when not falling through ladders.

It’s odd this directorial lark, I have written about it before and I will certainly write about it again, but that point when it all goes up can be the most distancing. After all the hard work, the weeks of preparation and planning, a play goes out into the world and, unless one is taking a significant role, there is nothing much that can be done once it is up and running. The house of cards has been built but when it is blown into a different shape, it can still look good as a house of cards and people appreciate it, but it isn’t YOUR house of cards! And that can frustrate.

As an actor you invariably feel the reaction of the audience, the warm glow of attentiveness, the baited breath or laughter and, it must be said, the occasional snoring. Comedy, therefore, can be one of the most rewarding styles for a performer because, if it is going right, you hear and feel that reaction regularly with every guffaw that rings out. In my opinion that immediacy isn’t quite there as a director, which is why some like to get involved during a show’s run, whether behind the scenes or in cameo.

Naysayers and superstitious types would say that I should snap out of it anyway as it is, of course, the curse of Macbeth . I am not sure I would agree with that but, I must admit, it did get me thinking a little bit about the reputation of this play. I remember reading something about it when I was studying Shakespeare many years ago at university- it was one of the few seminars that I dragged my lazy ass to – and I recall writing something about it in a lesson when I was teaching The Scottish Play a few years ago to a Year 11 class. My memory was a little hazy and I wasn’t sure I knew the whole story. Thus, at a time when sensible people suffused with red wine would be sleeping, I poured another one and let the fingers fly over the keyboard entering a world of search engines, spirits and sorcery.

There is no question this ‘curse’ has resonance within the acting community. I know people in many amateur groups – and that includes a few in the Matchbox- that stiffen with horror if someone says the name of the play out loud instead of ‘The Scottish Play’ and they will not be satisfied until the culprit has gone out of the room, spun round three times, spat, swore and then asked to be allowed back on (or assorted variants of that theme). Thespians are a superstitious lot.

So, it seems, was King James I – the first Stuart King of England, and who undoubtedly served as an inspiration for many aspects of the play hailing as he did from Scotland with a suitably anti-witchcraft stance which characterised many of the legislative and political decisions of his early reign. He banned the play for five years owing to its occult and supernatural content.

Much of the mystique behind the play’s curse, therefore, is derived from just this- Shakespeare’s alleged use of authentic spells and incantations spoken by witches of the period:

First Witch

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d. 

Second Witch

Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch

Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

First Witch

Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

All

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

All

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

All

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch 

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.

                                        (Macbeth IV. I 1-38)

This is about as legitimate as it comes to some theorists and critics. As such there are those that believe these words have marked the play for all time, whilst others allege a coven of witches cursed the play for eternity following Shakespeare’s misguided appropriation of such secretive and occult rhymes. It does, however, also seem that many of these early urban legends, and that is what they have become, also came from similar stories about Doctor Faustus, Kit Marlowe’s Mephistophelean tale which had seen notoriety on the stage 13 years earlier (with Kit Harringtons version achieving a different sort of notoriety a little more recently than that).

The reputation has built over time, fuelled by incidents that seem to reek of ill fortune associated with the piece. Some are apocryphal, some mythical: for example the belief that Abraham Lincoln was reading the play, apparently his favourite, before he was shot at the theatre whilst watching Our American Cousin. This seems rather tenuous guilt by very loose association. And why doesn’t anybody talk about the curse of Our American Cousin? Macbeth has, thus far, not been responsible for a single presidential death at time of writing.

Of course, some incidents did, in fact occur. One of the most notable was the riot at New York City’s Astor Opera House in 1849, caused by rival productions of the play. Twenty-two people died, including some who just happened to be walking past the theatre, when glass-and-bottle armed fans of American actor Edwin Forrest descended on Astor Place, where English actor William Macready was performing his version of Macbeth. The two sides clashed and Macready fled, never to return to America again.

Or in the 1937 production where Laurence Olivier, playing the Scottish King, was nearly brained by a stage weight which mysteriously became untied and crashed within inches of the actor. And, in in the same production, when the tip of a (real) sword flew into the audience in one of the fight scenes causing the viewer to have a heart attack.

And what about the 1942 Macbeth starring John Gielgud in which three actors died during its run and the costume designer killed himself after the premiere. And then there was the 1953 run where Charlton Heston suffered severe burns on his legs having discovered his tights had been mysteriously soaked in kerosene.

Or perhaps one could look to the complete disaster which was Peter O’Toole’s notorious gore soaked 1980 production which, in its over the top execution and stage bathed in gallons of blood, became an object of hysterical laughter earning the titles ‘Macdeath’ and ‘Macflop’.

Even the recent Michael Fassbender film has its own contribution to the enduring tales of the play’s ‘curse’, with Marion Cotillard as Lady M apparently being pulled into a bog during one of the scenes and later being rendered too unwell and exhausted to attend the premiere in Cannes.

Perhaps she was just working too hard.

Or perhaps there is some truth in it.

Either way, all these events and many more have contributed to an aura about this play which has seen it tarnished with a reputation for bad karma and damnable evil!

For myself, I consider its fearful reputation to be something to do with matters more secular. Traditionally, theatre owners would replace struggling productions with Macbeth, a proven box-office draw; actors in any other play feared any mention of the play’s title because it usually spelled the end of their present job!

However you look at it, if there is a curse on this play then I certainly feel that writing about it has reversed it – the cathartic experience of research and writing into the wee small hours has undoubtedly driven away the melancholia and left this director enthusiastic and looking forward immensely to tonight’s show. The Farndale Avenue Estate’s Ladies Society have two more nights of the play, alongside our rendering of the classic ‘Umlaut’, but whatever goes amiss tonight, I can feel satisfied that we are in eminent company and relish in the fact that it will just be another story to add to a very long list.

Advertisements