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A dystopian, post-apocalyptic world: Staging Macbeth in 2020

  Director Cressida Brown reveals the creative decisions behind her Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production of Macbeth

6 minute read

Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank is our flagship project for schools in London and Birmingham, where we stage full-scale Shakespeare productions created specifically for young people. This year sees the project turn to Shakespeare’s gripping thriller Macbeth, one of the most popular plays on the National Curriculum. Our Head of Learning, Lucy Cuthberston, chats to Director Cressida Brown to find out more about her decisions behind staging this play for a young audience in 2020.

What drew you to directing a Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank performance at Shakespeare’s Globe?

This is the fourteenth year of Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank and I am super excited to be directing it. I think that Macbeth is the best play, Shakespeare’s Globe is the best space and young people are the best audience. The only way that I am altering this production for a younger audience is to strive to make it better. It’s got to be clearer, it’s got to be more exciting, it’s got to be bolder.

Audiences during our Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production of Twelfth Night in 2016. Photographer: Cesare de Giglio

What do you think young audiences today can learn from Macbeth and how relevant is this story in 2020?

I think in the current climate it’s really important to speak out about issues that they feel strongly about. I hope that my production of Macbeth will help young people think about the consequences of remaining silent. In the play, everyone knows that Macbeth has murdered Duncan but some people stay quiet because they want to keep their power. I think that the enabling of a tyrant is just as bad as being a tyrant yourself.

‘In the current climate it’s really important to speak out about issues you feel strongly about. I hope Macbeth will help young people think about the consequences of remaining silent’

So I understand this theme of tyranny is something you particularly want to explore. Does the structure of the play lends itself to that?

The structure of Macbeth lends itself to the theme of tyranny because it is about Kings and what they do with power. I am going to end the production with the witches saying ‘When shall we three meet again?’. As most people know, this is the first line of the play, but I want to leave the audience with the idea that tyranny is something that continues, it is not tied to a leader and you never know what regime are you going to be replacing with another.

And you’re also exploring the links between nationalism and fear. Tell us something about that.

I think Macbeth is one of the most fearful of heroes and he has every right to be because it’s a Machiavellian, dog-eat-dog world. Macbeth might be bloody, and he might be a tyrant but what motivates him is fear for himself as well as ambition. The design of our production is centered around flags because the play has a lot to do with nationhood or Nationalism. At the end, England takes over Scotland as Malcolm proclaims it a different nation in just one sentence. I’m interested in these decisions which are dependent on the whim of your leader.

The flags in Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank Macbeth. Designer: Georgia Lowe. Photographer: Charlotte Horobin.

You’ve mentioned flags as a key production element. How else are you hoping to communicate your ideas through the design?

Design is really important to this production because the space is so immersive, the audience are right next to the actors and feel part of the action. The world that we are creating is a kind of Hunger Games, dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. It’s also an ancient world so might be after the climate crisis has come to a head – it feels very ancient even though it is in the future. As the audience walk in to the Globe, there will be burnt flags which hover around the space so people feel like they are in the middle of this desolate war-torn country.

So to the characters… how will you be approaching the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

I truly believe that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are deeply in love and almost an adult Romeo and Juliet. It might surprise people that we are making Lady Macbeth pregnant and therefore much more vulnerable than she might be in other interpretations. One way of looking at this relationship is that they do all of these hideous deeds initially for love for each other and also for their unborn children. I think it’s important when we label people as ‘evil’, that their actions may be ‘evil’ but we understand what motivates them and separate the deed from the person.

‘It’s important when we label people as ‘evil’, that their actions may be ‘evil’ but we understand what motivates them and separate the deed from the person’

Director Cressida Brown in rehearsals. Photographer: Cesare de Giglio

How are the witches going to be portrayed in your adaptation of Macbeth and why have you chosen this interpretation?

In our production, the witches are vulnerable products of society, the collateral damage of war. They are scavengers on a battlefield, hungry, without a home, desperate and desolate. That’s not to say that they’re not crazy, or capable of cursing people but we want to understand their motives as real people – I think that’s far more interesting. It might be that Macbeth doesn’t meet the witches again after his first encounter but as the play goes on they become part of his imagination and he is tormented by them. Their language becomes much more extreme with ‘bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’, and they become almost parodies of themselves.

I understand the banquet scene is a personal favourite of yours. What do you love about it?

I think the banquet scene is one of the best scenes written in the history of theatre. It’s so much fun! Banquo is enjoying himself scaring Macbeth, it’s his only power. It starts as a very formal banquet and by the end it’s complete disarray. We want to have a lot of fun with that.

FINIS.

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