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October 29, 1974 | The Royal Shakespeare Company
Trevor Nunn’s position at the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company gave him the opportunity to do what few directors in commercial theatre can do: work with two sets of actors and one designer to produce distinct but related productions. His understanding of “Macbeth” grew through this work. The first production was actually two productions: an elaborately dressed original in 1974 in Stratford that stressed religion and faith, followed by a stripped-down version at the Aldwych in London in 1975, with virtually the same cast, that stressed ritual. This 1974 production has been called controversial – not because of Williamson, an actor once called “the terrible tempered tiger of the English stage” – but because the play was produced like a kind of black mass. It fairly reeks of evil. Themes of inverted religion permeate the production. In this version the three witches whose spells and predictions so ensnare Macbeth are almost the least supernatural of the elements. Lady Macbeth, on her first appearance, slashes her wrist to summon spirits of darkness with her own blood. Before murdering his best friend Macbeth involes the underworld with chants over an inverted cross on an open Bible.
Williamson’s performance had been anticipated as the high point of a rather disappointing Stratford season. After a decade of bravura performances, Williamson himself said Macbeth was “the big one for me. The biggest of my life”. Nunn sees Macbeth’s tragedy increasingly played out within the man’s own mind. Once his first murder is done, this Macbeth is gradually seen with fewer and fewer people. By the end he is alone, raving at unseen enemies from atop a bunker made of high-piled church furniture. His performance is characteristically physical, typically powerful. From his Macbeth’s great speeches come unpoetically, but filled with new meaning, as if they were being thought for the first time. His Macbeth surrenders with reluctant willingness to the forces of darkness within himself. Yet strong though Williamson’s portrayal is, it remains true that when his “Macbeth” is remembered, it will be Nunn’s conception which comes to mind. Helen Mirren remembered Macbeth in her autobiography. “The play is supposed to be cursed. Thank God nothing disastrous happened in our production except in the relationship between Nicol and me. He hated me.”
Critics divided sharply over Nunn’s controversial black magic approach, but they united in praise of the two actors. Helen Mirren, returning to Stratford after a four-year absence, plays Lady Macbeth with brisk skill, though her sexy swinger type seems oddly at variance with Nunn’s overall approach. The American academic Marvin Rosenberg, whose book “Masks of Macbeth” chronicles the play’s performance history, has some examples of French actresses attempting to portray what he calls “the sensual Lady”; but according to his testimony, Helen Mirren pioneered what’s now become a common, almost customary interpretation of the role”. Of her Lady Macbeth, the critic Benedict Nightingale observed: “Few actors now feel they can ignore… the sexual politics of the Macbeths’ dark and sinister marriage. That was largely Mirren’s achievement.” The Sunday Times lauded Mirren’s “intelligent and irresistible sexuality” as Lady Macbeth, but the Telegraph dismissed her as “a sexy doll amusing herself by dabbling in black magic.” Another critic, Harold Hobson, noted: “When the stage is occupied only by Macbeth himself, Macduff and so on, I was wishing the author would get rid of them and let us see what was happening to this marvellous actress. I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.”