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Macbeth: A Psychological Study

Macbeth - Harry Anton, Michael Fassbender and Jo Nesbo

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play and it is a story filled with death, danger and prophesy. With witches and military conquest, kingly intrigue, madness and betrayal, it speaks to us of the price of personal ambition and the consequences of power-play at the highest level of government. Consequently, its influence is widely felt across our culture, the ambiguous attraction of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed antiheroes proves irresistible to so many. Yet, it is not an easy play to master, so intricately has the writer devised the psychological shape that more productions fail than succeed in creating the right (and believable) conditions for Macbeth’s crimes to flourish and die by his own hand.

Looking at successful adaptations of the play drawn from different media – a recent  theatre production, a film and a novelisation – as well as a high-profile production that failed, it is clear that the very best versions of the story exist in a complex psychological abyss. Giving due consideration to the various forces within the play and making them work in harmony is crucial to achieving a credible interpretation however different these may be.

The Play

Macbeth is a play that on the surface seems easy to understand, a regular favourite on the fringe especially (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing), this dark tale of murder, revenge and retribution seems quite straightforward. Yet, there are three fundamental questions that govern the play and regardless of how an adaptation answers them or the era in which the story is reimagined, these questions must be tackled consistently to ensure that the psychological building blocks of the play properly stack together.

First, the role of the supernatural must be determined, is the story driven by prophesy and fate to an inevitable end or are the witches merely a symbolic manifestation of Macbeth’s (and our) desire to believe that random events have divine purpose? Second, what is the role of human agency in the play, does Macbeth use the witches’ forecast to solidify decisions he would have made anyway, controlling his own path to kingship or is he the puppet of destiny, and to what extent is he consciously aware of his freedom to act or his failure to maintain power over the events he seeks to control?

Finally, what is the nature of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, is she merely another victim of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ or is his enthrallment with her own lust for power the cause of so many deaths – this is particularly relevant when, consumed with paranoia, Macbeth strikes out on his own in the second half of the play, confining Lady Macbeth to the shadows. Regardless of whether the play is set in medieval Scotland, a dystopian future or the crime-riddled streets of Inverness by way of Norway, the answers to these questions are the key to unlocking the play and ensuring its successful transition to the stage.

The Theatre Adaptation

Last summer, Antic Disposition presented their nineteenth-century set version of Macbeth in Temple Church and in doing so created one of the best approaches to the play that London has seen in recent years. Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero and with a superb performance by Harry Anton in the title role, the production chose to make the effect of the supernatural fundamental to the story, manipulating and driving events at every turn by placing the witches as servants in the Palace where they could closely observe and shape the action. It proved a smart decision, one that in the eerie setting of the church created a chilling tone as the witches appeared at every death or key moment as silent but menacing symbols of fate, ever pleased with how precisely their interference in human affairs fulfilled their intention.

In answering the first question so decidedly, the result was to create inevitability in the story that affected the impact of human agency, shown here to be fruitless as characters retained merely the illusion of free thought. Anton’s mellifluous Macbeth was cruel and soldierly with no particular love for Duncan. The witches prophesy igniting a latent ambition in him which he gruesomely pursues believing he is fully in control. Likewise, the determination of this Macbeth answers question three as his wife is jettisoned, taking control of the plan to murder Duncan and, while encouraged by her, the balance of power lay clearly with the husband, making sense of his decision to act and suffer alone as the initial object is achieved with remarkable ease.

As Macbeth assumed the crown, Anton superbly conveyed the disorder of his mind where regret and paranoia contended, showing how clearly the events he set in motion spun rapidly beyond his control, demanding further bloodshed along with his surety of purpose as the throne came under attack. There was no human agency in Antic Disposition’s approach and, combined with the ever-visible presence of the witches, Macbeth’s struggle to hold on to the trappings of majesty against the tide of fate cost him his sanity and his life. There was a feeling of psychological completeness for the audience as strands of the play intertwined to become a brutal vision of unchecked masculinity that was partly influenced by a film from four years earlier.

The Film Adaptation

There are few versions of Macbeth that compare to Justin Kurzel’s electrifying 2015 film adaptation that transformed the play into an unrelenting two hour thriller. Its key achievement was to draw-out new emphasis from this well-worn story, examining the consequences of military action and the damaging effects of parental bereavement – the result is one of the most powerful and psychologically perfect treatments of Shakespeare’s play that you will find. This insightful approach used the basis of a warlike society and the demands of masculinity to set the parameters of the story, creating the conditions in which the already damaged Macbeth is convinced to kill his friend before being broken by the parade of battlefield ghosts that plague his mind relentlessly.

In this context, the introduction of the witches and their power becomes a reflection of his fractured personality that may or may not be a figment of his splintered mind, and while they haunt the action, Kurzel focuses on the notion of post-traumatic stress (for want of a period appropriate term) and grief for a lost child as the driving forces behind Macbeth’s actions – illuminated through the inclusion of an additional child witch and framed by the funeral of Macbeth’s heir which opens the story. What ensues is, then, the triumph of human agency emerging from the hearts and minds of a damaged couple exhausted by battle and the experience of continual loss, filling their emptiness with murderous enterprise.

There is a pain in denying the maternal that moves Lady Macbeth into a central role here as her sorrow curdles into desperation for progress. Marion Cotillard’s multi-layered performance emphasises the difficulty of being a noblewoman unable to provide a successor in a deeply feudal structure where her status would depend on childbearing unless queenship becomes an alternative, desirable and unchallengeable means of demanding respect. See also her painfully sad soliloquy that portends her madness as she returns to her former home to address the dead child. And Macbeth himself is entirely in her power, their relationship ignited by a sexual chemistry and mutual respect that is so fascinating.

The psychological consequences so carefully established in Kurzel’s vision are expertly played in Michael Fassbender’s astonishing Macbeth who contends so movingly with the scorpions afflicting his mind, a performance that fizzes and burns on the screen as the effects of his actions both before and after the witches’ intervention play out. Kurzel presents a fresh take, so steeped in brutality and danger that this became one of the most psychologically convincing adaptations of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero – something that writer Jo Nesbo also achieved with his own cruel and merciless recreation.

The Novel Adaptation

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo may seem a strange inclusion but his books instantly have an immersive and cinematic quality that made his 2018 novelisation a surprisingly successful rendering of the familiar story which he relocated to the Scandi-influenced world of the Inverness police force. An avowed fan of Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has openly discussed the influence of Macbeth on his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, so when the chance came to reimagine the Scottish play, Nesbo seemed an appropriate choice. His version departs considerably from other stage and film approaches, offering a modern tale of corruption and power play bathed in a seedy film noir style. In taking very different decisions to the two examples discussed above, Nesbo’s 2018 novel may feel more radical, yet the psychological cohesion of the world he creates is every bit as compelling.

Making Macbeth an aspiring policeman prepared to kill his way to the top job creates different demands on the character and increases the breadth and nature of the interactions that keep him in power. The ambitious officer, by necessity, crosses paths with many powerful men including the Mayor, and while Macbeth kills his Duncan-equivalent early on, Nesbo deliberately holds him back from achieving a wider political power that must act as further motivation for him as he attempts to segue into full management of the city.

In this dark and shady version of Inverness, the great battle is not against other regions within Scotland but with a local, invisible and seemingly untouchable drug lord named Hecat, through which Nesbo poses quite a different interpretation of the supernatural. Fleshing-out Macbeth’s backstory as a reformed addict whose craving for “Brew” becomes a fatal flaw naturally establishes interactions with Hecat’s men who double for the witches. And while there is no actual magic involved, Macbeth still sets his mind and faith to the will of external forces he cannot control.

The page-turning quality of Nesbo’s writing instantly immerses the reader in the scenario he has created as you become increasingly engaged with his expansive realignment of the play including a valuable antagonistic history between MacDuff and Macbeth that colours-in some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s original while providing clear motivation for the other roles with illuminating care. There is no doubt that this is a story of human agency and while Macbeth’s casino-owning partner simply known as Lady is his equal with her own business to run, the protagonist actively pursues his own course (answering questions two and three), while the pull of addiction and lust for power are brought down upon him. It is a fantastic read, told with verve and invention, but it is the vivid complexity and detailed extent of the psychological profile that Nesbo created which makes this novel worthy of comparison with the examples above.

Getting it Wrong

When a version of Macbeth is done well it is gripping, but one duff note in the psychology will bring the whole thing crashing down, as sadly happened to the National Theatre in Rufus Norris’s 2018 attempt which forgot that translating something to a different period setting is no substitute for having a ‘take’ on the play in which its psychological construction becomes credible. Held in a dystopian future after some form of unexplained apocalyptic war – indicated by trees made from bin bags and a central ramp (hill) so steep the poor actors had to tread gingerly to avoid falling over – the court was reimagined as a ragtag group of rebels in concrete bunkers. But the wider implications were less convincingly thought through, materially impacting on the credibility of the play – what exactly was Macbeth killing for in a scenario where nothing existed, what system of aristocracy and government had survived and why did concepts of witchcraft remain?

Without being able to clearly delineate Macbeth’s world order with its fuzzy power structure and limits, this lessened the impact of cause and effect within the play so the production swiftly unraveled. There were witches running in exhausting circles around the stage but their manipulation of events was less certain, few of the incoherent production decisions held together cohesively and psychologically it fell apart. So, by the time Rory Kinnear started awkwardly swiping at the air and wondering if he could see a dagger, it was fatally flawed.

The Psychology of Macbeth

In this brief multimedia examination of the various recent forms Macbeth has taken, it is clear that the very best interpretations have tight control of the character context, creating believable and vivid hierarchies, confines and social structures in which Macbeth’s freedom to operate as a war hero, regicide and tyrant permits and informs his non-linear journey through the story. Whether his lust for power originates in a lack of love for the existing king, his own corrupted grief or mind-altering substances, his resultant actions are crucially bounded by decisions the creative team must make about the role of fate, human agency and the balance of power both within his marriage and the community around him. Build a credible scenario and a credible Macbeth can emerge. Get it right as Ben Horslen and John Risebero, Justin Kurzel and Jo Nesbo did and Macbeth is a blistering thrill-ride of self-destruction, get it wrong and you’re just swiping at imaginary daggers in the air. The psychology is all.

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