Shakespeare's Globe

RSS Rehearsals 1

In this second blog post, Elliot Cowan (Macbeth)discusses how his character has developed in rehearsals, including Macbeth's relationships with Lady Macbeth and Banquo, how Macbeth deals with guilt and Macbeth's understanding of the supernatural.

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Time: 20 minutes, 58 seconds

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Transcript of Podcast

Ryan Nelson:

Hello I’m Ryan Nelson, and these are the Adopt and Actor podcasts for the 2010 season. I’m here with Elliot Cowan, who’s playing Macbeth in this year’s production, and we’re going to be looking at rehearsals this week.

Ordinarily I would ask the question ‘Who are your key relationships with?’, but in this play Macbeth seems to have quite significant relationships with a range of people, so I want to start by picking one of those out and thinking about the relationship with Lady Macbeth, which is quite a central one for the events of the play, and if you could just talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on that.

Elliot Cowan:

They have about five scenes together. The first one isn’t until the fourth or fifth scene of the play, so we’ve already seen Macbeth with other soldiers first. She’s first introduced to us reading a letter that he’s written, so there’s a correspondence that’s happened before we get to see them together, which is an interesting place to start, because it sort of tells you something about how they might privately and personally relate. And in that way we’ve learnt how intimate Macbeth and how disclosing of information he is to his wife, in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect all men to be in that time and place. So that’s a start.

And then within that there’s language which kind of reveals how he respects her and sees her as an equal, I think. He calls her “partner of greatness” (1.5.10), at one point, and says that this future idea of him being King and now Thane of Cawdor is something that will bring her great fortune too as his wife, and his confidant. So you might say that whilst the news is slightly dubious, he makes the best of it for her before we even get to see them together.

And then when we first see them together he doesn’t really say a lot, he reacts a lot to what her excitement is and hearing the news and seeing him again return from battle, and we thought about what that homecoming would be like for a man who’s been away for many weeks and fought and risked his life beside his colleagues and for his nation, and then managed to come home, firstly alive, and also secondly a huge hero. And we see how he’s treated by his King and his men at first, because of this, but then, more significantly perhaps, we see how she is so loyal and so sensual and so excited at the prospect of seeing him again; so, that’s an interesting place to start.

Then we later see them in more conflict; we realise that they’ve made some kind of pact, basically, to take the issue seriously and go on to kill Duncan, and then he shows some resistance to that when Duncan is actually in the next room. And this initiates what I think is something that develops more and more between them as a new facet to the relationship which is their lack of communication, and the way that Macbeth tends not to be able to fully reveal himself face to face with Lady Macbeth, and when he tries to tell her what he really feels he can’t bring himself to say it. And she’s very persuasive and very undermining and mocking of his masculinity, which is a real sore point for some reason between him and her, and his own view of himself. So she knows how to turn him round and change his mind, and this changes his mind in the most profound sense once he’s killed Duncan and the guilt and insecurity of that act creeps up on him and pushes him further into his own mind and his own actions without her as his confidant, which then I think ultimately leads to her mental demise.

So, you know, we’ve started trying to bed them down as young, ambitious, attractive, potentially great young people, relating them to other couples in, you know, in our own society that can sort of stand out like there’s people that we’ve all heard of, that people aspire to be like, whether they know the details of their relationship or not. And we talked about perhaps their relationship with their own parents, where they started out together, where they got to meet, their own wealth. Is the Thane of Glamis a very powerful position? Does it have much land and many people within it’s fraternity? Or is it less significant, as say Cawdor is (that is what Macbeth takes on at the beginning of the play).

And we’ve talked about their children too, which is a very complicated matter in this play, it’s a very significant one, the idea of children, sons and the lineage of any man and woman in this play is important, and it sort of redefines what that means actually in itself. Within the play, the different ... Duncan brings in a new rule, a new idea, to bring in his son as heir, as Prince of Cumberland at the beginning of the play, and this kind of idea of lineage is something which resonates throughout the play. But we learn from the text that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don’t have children, Macduff says “He has no children” (4.3.216) when he finds that his children have been murdered by Macbeth. However when we see Lady Macbeth quite early on she talks about having “given suck” (1.7.54) to a child, having sort of suckled her baby, one presumes, so we ask ourselves inevitably, what’s happened to this child and why don’t they speak of him, why don’t they seem to, why does Macbeth seem to think that there’s no lineage available to him now his king and why has Macduff said he has no children.

So we’ve come up with some basis and some argument to this, Lucy [Bailey], our director, was quite keen that we don’t overplay this, we don’t make the play about this issue. But for my money to investigate what could have happened and how this might have affected them, gives the relationship a sort of fragility and an intensity which, ... there is a febrile and vulnerable nature in Lady Macbeth particularly I think, based on this fact. So, yeah, there’s a lot of thought gone into it and then it’s in the playing of it, and ultimately they become quite strange to one another, both literally and physically, they don’t seem to spend much time together towards the end of the play and they can’t converse and eventually she kills herself, so it’s pretty fundamental, yeah.


With that journey of guilt that leads her to that place, I’m interested to know how Macbeth deals with the guilt.


Well, he pre-empts it,. He knows it’s going to be part of the problem, because he’s already feeling guilty about the very idea of it when he’s told that he’s going to be King and initially he goes straight to this “horrid image’ which “unfix[es] his hair, / And makes [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs / Against the use of nature” (1.3.135-7), he feels at once sort of guilty and electrified and physically and emotionally affected by the idea. He pre-empts it again by saying “we will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31); Duncan is a great, great King and to take his life would result in his virtues speaking to heaven like trumpets declaring the deep damnation of his killing.

So, I mean, Macbeth knows full well the implications of his killing a man like Duncan (or indeed any man that’s not in war). But, for his wife, unable to express this to her, he realises her must go on with what he has put in her mind and his mind as an objective, and in so doing we see him, in this production particularly, mourn the death of Duncan, hotly after the murder itself when the rest of the house discovers the murder, and we’re playing through that to the nth degree with regards to what Macbeth is really allowing himself to feel at the loss of this paternal figure in his life. And then this seeps through other scenes that infest the new King Macbeth with a sense of paranoia and trepidation at being taken from his throne, his new throne, by somebody else’s hand, which I think is compounded by the sense of guilt - the fact that he’s done that to one man, he feels that another man could do it to him.

He disassociates himself from this sense of guilt to a degree, although I think we see evidence of how, in the banquet scene when he sees the ghost of Banquo, whose death he’s ordered just moments before and heard about from the murderer just at the top of the scene, we see that his visualisation of that, his visitation by Banquo as a ghost is an example of some psychological disorder based on guilt, and that it’s squeezed his brain into a sort of malfunction, and his conscience comes to revisit him in a way that our dreams might, and plague our sort of subconscious with something very very realistic and horrific based on our actions.

He also suffers from sleep itself, you know, that he has “terrible dreams / That shake us nightly” (3.2.18-9), he says, and he has a problem with being left alone in his own company without feeling horrific, and he says to his wife that his “mind” is “full of scorpions” (3.2.36) so, we know he is very very uncomfortable with the way things have panned out and why he feels responsible for them, so ... he is a normal man in this regard, and this is ... but then he undergoes extraordinary abnormalities thereafter.


That’s fascinating. You mentioned Banquo’s ghost there, I guess that’s one of the other relationships in which there’s a lot at stake, and which ultimately becomes a threat to him. I know that you and Laura [Rogers] who’s playing Lady Macbeth and Christian [Bradley] who’s playing Banquo had some prior rehearsals about the dynamic between the three of you, and I’m interested to know about whether you’ve created a back-story for yourself and Banquo, both as Macbeth and as a couple?


Yeah, yeah, we did, and throughout the play this has been the case. So, in the case of Banquo and I, we figured out: he’s a bit older than me, how far we go back, how we may have met, what sort of land we occupy and in relationship to each other. And in regards to his wife, who seems not to be in the play, we’ve decided that she has died, and she has left behind a child, Fleance, with Banquo to tend, and that son of his is a godson of mine and a sort of surrogate nephew of Lady Macbeth’s, and that we would get together on big family occasions or festivals, we were there at each other’s weddings as best men, and, you know, sort of important figures there. So there’s an ease and a trust and an understanding and an intimacy between all of us which wasn’t just won on the battlefield, but is also something that presides in the family too. So that when it comes to the crunch and certain decisions have to be made about killing Banquo despite his friendship with Macbethm, it becomes more potent with guilt and with treachery, really, and with sin.

So yeah, that was all discussed, we did some physical improvisations to demonstrate that, just things like, you know, pretending you’re at a dance and you’re there with your wife and then your good friend wants to have a dance, and you allow him to dance and you trust him with that, and they seem to get along fine and it’s very intimate but it’s not sexual, and you watch without any jealousy but sort of love for them both, and those kind of things. Then we also did some other improvisations around weddings and courtly incidents, so yeah, that feels quite well bedded in. And that’s something we’ve repeated with other characters too, so we’re hopefully gonna sort of strike a chord, and now I’ve got to work with the boys who are playing Fleance, who’s obviously Banquo’s son, and we’ve taken that further with them too, so they feel comfortable with us being their good friends as well.


Wonderful. Continuing on thinking a little bit about Banquo... The spark, I guess, that drives a lot of the narrative initially is the fact that the witches appear to both you and Banquo and deliver a prophecy, they seem to have supernatural knowledge. How does Macbeth relate to the witches? How does he view them, and how does he view the wider supernatural world that seems to come out in the “air-drawn dagger” (3.4.61) and Banquo’s ghost?


Well, I think it’s a difficult question to answer from our perspective and we are trying to find the reality of it for Macbeth and, what we’ve decided to start with is that Macbeth is a courageous and capable and successful man on the battlefield and is a good husband and a fair leader and a good guy. But then he does seem to have this one hole in his armour, which is a belief in something, as odd as it may seem to us, as the supernatural. A fear of it which grasps him the minute he is told something by these strange looking women, who actually don’t necessarily scare him until they mention his name, and they say that you are the Thane of Glamis, and to be Thane of Cawdor and King hereafter. And it’s just the fact that they’ve had no introduction (and he doesn’t even know if they’re strictly speaking human) but they seem to know his name,and that opens up the chasm of ill seeds to be sown.

And it’s not even until Cawdor is then proven to be a correct prophecy by the witches that he seems locked into the reality of what they have to say, and what might be and what they’ve had to say. But then we are going, we’re pushing for something quite frightening and quite hardcore in this production and it was my instinct that after battle and after narrowly missing life and creating the devastation of many other lives in the battle against the Norwegians and MacDonald at the beginning of the play, Macbeth would be in a point of vulnerability and high adrenaline, sort of, trauma, almost, like a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] situation, that I know soldiers suffer from even today. And then seeing something as weird as a bunch of witches clinging to a tree or emerging from the earth and hailing you as Macbeth, so shortly after a battle, in a world like this would definitely have its physical and emotional impact.

I think from that starting point, combined with a perhaps anyway pre-destined sense of ambition and rights that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have spoken about before, allows him to feel quite affected and quite ... almost lunatic with his desire for something more. And then experiencing that pressure from his wife, to undergo killing somebody in his own house, late at night, when the mind is playing tricks on any one of us if we’re a little bit jumpy, he is reminded of certain things in his violent past and his imminent violent future. In the hot pressure of having just seen his best friend and dismissed him to bed, these manifest in this kind of internal hallucination that is projected beyond his own skull and his own brain into the air before him.

And it might be that he’s caught the refraction of moonlight through a window at a slightly odd angle, and something seems to be glinting when it’s actually not there, or it might be that he’s just having to psyche himself up to do something he really just doesn’t want to do, that involves the use of a dagger, which he says, and he’s mustering that inner might and "hardness of use", as he says of his behaviour later (3.4.142), that manifests in this dagger, reminding him and focussing him of what he has to do. And as a man who’s been in battle and cut the throat of many a man, or snuck up behind them as an ambush, or ”unseam’d [them] from the nave to th’chops” (1.2.22), that he’s so familiar with the language of violence in that respect it’s going to be one of the things he first sees in those circumstances.

I try to tie it to a psychological thing that I can relate to as a 21st century actor and man, that Shakespeare may not have known about or thought about, but I believe he’s made some observations in people he would’ve seen come back from Ireland, where there were massacres going on against the rebels, or the Spanish; leading up to the Armada there was a suspected invasion by Spain in 1599 which put the willies up lots of Londoners, as 9/11 did and 7/7 did in London here. And that’s the kind of frame of mind that maybe Shakespeare has observed in soldiers and in people in London at that time that he’s written about in this way with Macbeth. And we would call it something else, schizophrenia or PTSD or some kind of hallucination: internal, verbal, visual or otherwise. But I want to sort of pin it down to something that I can believe in, and that’s kind of where I’m starting with the dagger.

And then with Banquo I think it’s taken a step further because he very much visualised and talked himself into the necessity of killing Banquo. The sins that Banquo’s laid upon him that he can justify to the murders who would kill Banquo at the drop of a hat (for the right price anyway), but really Macbeth psyched himself up yet again to give the order against his best friend, and then has heard some news as to where ...well, more particularly, he specifically located the murder for the murderers to perform, and told them exactly what to do, where to do it and when. He’s become very invested in the detail. And then when he’s heard that Banquo’s still alive but Fleance has gone and he sees blood on the man’s face he tells him so; it’s kind of relevant that he’s going to see the very physical presence of the man that’s been the subject of this fascination for the last 24 hours or two weeks or however long it might have been.

And the way that we’re presenting Banquo almost is like that, that there’s something tangible in the fabric of that banquet that we are exploding into the idea of the ghost of Banquo. And I’m told by a professor I spoke to about some of these psychological disorders that sometimes an image or a smell or a face or a smile or even a word can set off a flashback in somebody with PTSD that might be referencing some prior experience of trauma in their lives, and just the image of that might go, ‘I’m back there, suddenly I’m seeing another reality and I’m behaving towards it with every investment of my fibre, even though nobody else can see it’.

But he, Macbeth, thinks it’s all pinned down to the dark spirits that work in the night against him and his wife to make them do the things that they’re doing now, and psyching them up to do them and achieve them despite their better judgement at times. And after that incident with Banquo he goes off and he revisits the witches for yet further news and further gumption and further prophecies and revelations that will make him secure or otherwise to perform further deeds of assassination and war and murder, etcetera, etcetera. So, it’s all in the language and in Lucy Bailey’s production, is supernatural phenomenon. But as an actor, so that I feel that I can take these chance, I really want to locate them in a psychological, contemporary view of the man’s disposition, and that allows me to be as free with it as I can, and hopefully honour the director’s position on it too.


That’s a fascinating account of the process that you’ve gone through to both respect and believe in the vision that Lucy has, but also to, as you say, try to ground it in something that you can at least empathise with.


You realise that sometimes you speak to the director about these things and they don’t really want to hear! I’m not saying they aren't generous - Lucy certainly is generous! But that’s my job, to fulfil that gap, that hole, that remit in the performance and in the production, and providing Lucy knows I’m doing it, she doesn’t need to necessarily hear all of it but the basics, and I will just strive to make it as thorough as I can.


Thank you very much, that was great.

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