A new radio play sets out to recover Macbeth’s reputation from “five acts of lies”. By Jay Richardson
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s bloodiest, spookiest and most exciting play, but its portrayal of a tyrant, the back-stabbing butcher of Inverness and his fiend-like queen is also arguably the Bard’s greatest libel, Elizabethan propaganda that glorified Banquo’s lineage for his Tudor descendants.
Contemporary accounts refer to Mac Bethad the Renowned, who instead of “hurly burly”, reigned over a remarkably harmonious Scotland between 1040 and 1057. Credited with spreading Christianity through the country, making pilgrimage to the Vatican and spreading gold amongst the poor, he was held by some Highland clans as the last great Celtic ruler of the nation.
Now a new interpretation for Radio 4, Macbeth Rebothered, strives to recover the king’s reputation from that “bloke called Willy” who “immortalised him in five acts of lies to cosy up to the Establishment”.
Written by David Reed and performed with his Penny Dreadfuls sketch group mates Humphrey Ker and Thom Tuck, their “tale told by some idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, but at least with “some jokes”, is narrated by Susan Calman, below right, and features Margaret Cabourn-Smith as Lady Macbeth and Greg McHugh in the title role as the flawed but canny and sympathetic ruler.
“It’s an iconic play to try to redo, especially for us in Scotland,” says Calman. “I was always fascinated by Lady Macbeth, the conniving power behind the king. After hundreds of years, I’m going to auditions and people still describe the character as a ‘Lady Macbeth type’. And you know exactly what they mean.”
In recent years the Penny Dreadfuls, who met while students at Edinburgh University, prior to becoming a Fringe “institution” according to Calman, have specialised in penning funny, revisionist plays for radio that “find some of the forgotten characters from history. Or at least those nearby and relevant to the true story who’ve dropped off the radar a bit,” says Reed.
The group’s 2012 take on the Battle of Hastings concerned itself with Hereward the Wake, who led the fight against William the Conqueror’s occupation. And before that, Revolution, which featured Richard E Grant as Maximilien de Robespierre, focused on Sally Hawkins’s portrayal of Marie-Therese, the 16-year-old daughter of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoninette.
“They led me to Macbeth, who we think we know an awful lot about and actually we know almost nothing,” says Reed. “I don’t want to be arrogant and say our version will get as much exposure as Shakespeare’s. But his is nonsense as far as what we know happened almost 1,000 years ago. It’s even more fanciful than ours!”
Blurring the endless cycles of patriarch-murder and vengeance beloved by medieval aristocracy, Elizabethan drama and 1980s Hollywood action movies, Rebothered does though, make allusions to Shakespeare’s more creative flourishes, such as Birnam Wood attacking Dunsinane and horse-on-horse cannibalism.
“There are some quite ridiculous things in that story,” notes Calman, whose occasionally sarcastic, mildly nippy narration “voices what the audience might be thinking”.
She recalls: “At the recording they gave me an armchair, as if I was sat by a fire reading it. That gave it the feel of something to listen to with a cup of tea on a cold winter’s day.”
Shakespeare’s minor character of the Porter is expanded into Macbeth’s drunken, joke-bungling sidekick, while Cabourn-Smith’s weird witch from Hereward The Wake returns. “History offers all these fantastic real titbits of detail,” Reed explains. “William the Conqueror had a witch curse Hereward and his army by climbing atop a scaffold and showing her bare bum to them. It felt completely right to bring that character back for this.”
With flashes of Braveheart then, a dash of Blackadder, and even traces of historical research in the Dreadfuls’ work, Rebothered is manifestly not a “Shakespeare parody”. Rather, it’s an original take that radically reboots such familiar characters as King Duncan, Siward and Lady M.
McHugh acknowledges that “Shakespeare quite rightly demands respect.
“But I sometimes wonder just how many re-imaginings [of his texts] we need. New writing tends to excite me a little more. This was the departure I was hoping for, with the gags Shakespeare really needs.”
The Fresh Meat star “pure loved” their production’s deployment of modern Scottish slang, although Calman adds that the English Dreadfuls “kept looking at Greg and I to check it was right during rehearsal”.
Reed laughs. “That’s always fun, chucking in a few ‘bampots’ and ‘bawbags!’” Despite being born in York and giving Ross and Lennox Yorkshire accents for audio “variety”, his mother’s side of the family “are all Scots born and bred without a Scots accent among them”. It was this caricature that McHugh sent up when he cast Reed as the plummy-vowelled soldier Rupert Fanshaw in his BBC Scotland comedy Gary: Tank Commander. Similarly, in Macbeth Rebothered, Tuck’s avenging Malcolm has that “aggressive English accent” that only the poshest of Scots can pull off.
Writing a play in the run up to the referendum on independence, about an English force marching into Scotland, mindful that “Duncan probably was brought up south of the Border,” with Shakespeare’s version implying that the invasion put an Englishman on the Scottish throne, Reed strove to be “sensitive” because “as much as it’s an issue that affects us down here, it’s not the same passion as you’ve got north of the Border”.
He considered writing two narrator parts, using a different one depending on the outcome of the vote. But he realised that it “wasn’t the forum for me to be having my tuppence worth”, pointing out that Macbeth’s conflict wasn’t between what we now recognise as Scotland and England anyway, and that connecting the two eras would have been a stretch.
Currently too busy with their individual careers to reform as a live entity, The Penny Dreadfuls are nevertheless poised to start work on another historical tale for Radio 4, a version of Homer’s Odyssey to air in September.
“We’ve got into a rhythm,” Reed enthuses. “If they turn round and decide they don’t want our silly plays any more, fair enough. But otherwise, we’ll keep on making them!”
• Macbeth Rebothered will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 13 December