Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ and bad luck

Jon Finch loses his head in Polanski's film of Macbeth / alucine.es

Jon Finch loses his head in Polanski’s film of Macbeth / alucine.es

Macbeth is William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, written between 1603 and 1607. The play contains many of the Bard’s most famous and usually ill-quoted lines, such as “Bubble, bubble” instead of ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’; “and good men’s lives expire before the feathers in their cap”; “is this a dagger I see before me?”; “at least I’ll die with harness on my back!” and so on.

It is above an actors’ and directors’ play: professionals and good amateurs queue up to play almost any part in it. It has been filmed by Orson Welles and Roman Polanski to name but two. Every leading man in British and American serious theatre has acted Macbeth at some time or other. But the play is stuck, or reputed anyway, with a curse.Something always goes wrong, sometimes fatally wrong if a company decides to produce it. To this day actors refuse properly to name the piece, preferring to use the euphemism ‘the Scottish Play’.

It would be difficult to find the origin of this notion, but we do know that at the very first performance the boy playing Lady Macbeth fell dead backstage. In the wartime production starring John Gielgud, three of the supporting actors (King Duncan and two witches) died, not necessarily on stage, and the stage designer committed suicide.

In 1948 the play was presented on Broadway with two productions simultaneously. A riot occurred for some reason lost in misty time, though twenty people died in it. In the 1960s director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Peter Hall meant to present Paul Scofield and Diana Rigg as the Macbeths.

During rehearsals Sir Peter as he then wasn’t developed shingles and had to leave the play to another director; Paul Scofield felt uncertain about his own casting, and Diana Rigg left altogether because of an offer to play Mrs Peel in the ultra-popular TV series The Avengers with Patrick Macnee. The production failed.

Also in the 1960s the Royal Court Theatre announced bizarre casting in their new production of Macbeth: they chose a French actress called Simone Signoret to play the Lady, and London critics and some comically-inclined members of the Profession rushed about the city muttering in strange accents ‘Ze raven heemself is ‘oarse zat croaked ze fatal entrance of Dooncan under my bettelments!’ Rehearsals went ahead (with Alec Guinness) and the play opened with fanfairs. Mme. Signoret said “ze raven heemself is ‘oarse zat croaked ze fatal entrance of Dooncan under my bettelments!” on cue. The audience fell apart and the production failed. Sir Alec was heard muttering much stronger words about it for quite a time afterwards. But no-one died.

Famous English public schools have suffered mysterious fires before, during and after productions of Macbeth. The same has happened at distinguished institutions on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. But the play goes on horrifying and thrilling audiences right around the world,in almost every language, though actors of all nationalities know full well the ‘risks’ involved.

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