Michael Fry: Blanket Festival coverage

Chilling experience: Belarus State Theatre's MacBeth, at Ravenscraig Castle, in 1996
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Another year brings another Macbeth, in yet another language – but can anything top the cold reception the play received in Kirkcaldy, wonders Michael Fry

It WILL usually have been, I suppose, at some point in the depths of winter that the word came through to Los Angeles/Marseille/Frankfurt/St Petersburg, to the directors of progressive but provincial and therefore not too expensive theatrical companies.

“My Gahd/Mon Dieu/Mein Gott/Moy Bog!” the director would have exclaimed to his hastily summoned ensemble, flourishing the invitation above his afro curls/lank strands/shiny pate/cascading locks. “I am taking you to the most famous festival in the whole world, to Edinburgh!”

“You don’t mean Edinburgh, Scotland, England?” the breathless actors and actresses, all agog, would have chorused in retort.

“Yeah/Oui/Ja/Da,” he would have affirmed.

“But what can we, poor wandering players, offer such distinguished and discerning audiences?”

“I know,” says the director after just a moment’s thought. “We will give them Macbeth! And we shall show them what American guts/French style/German intellect/Russian soul will do for their national drama! Whether or not they like it, they will never again see it in the same light!”

It is as the result of some such scenes, presumably, that over the Augusts of so many years the countless productions have turned up at Festival or Fringe of what actors prefer to call “the Scottish play”. They dislike naming it by its proper name because it is reputed to bring misfortune or even death to members of the cast. If before the first night one thespian happens to utter the proper name inadvertently, he or she is required to walk round the theatre three times, spit over the left shoulder and utter an obscenity. Once back onstage, a line from Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice needs to be quoted to dispel the menace.

Still, in the particular performance which sticks in my mind, the audience rather than the cast were the ones to suffer. It was organised by my old friend Ricky Demarco – for whom, I hasten to add before going further, I have always entertained the highest respect, especially for his courage and commitment in bringing to Edinburgh so many challenging works of art often in defiance of a stuffy cultural establishment.

The production I am thinking of was typical: a Byelorussian Macbeth. Not content with just bringing it here, Ricky also sent it to Ravenscraig. When I first heard this was his intention, I imagined the scenes would be played out among the by-then silent satanic mills of Lanarkshire, where men of steel had wrought their hot strips, a suitably dark backdrop to a dark drama. But no, the Ravenscraig in question turned out to be Ravenscraig in Fife, more precisely Ravenscraig Castle at Kirkcaldy, perched on a bluff above the Firth of Forth.

When we arrived there the romantic aura was somewhat dispelled by the surrounding council scheme where the locals, leaning on their fences smoking fags or else walking their scabby dogs, looked on in bemusement as we stepped daintily down out of coaches from Edinburgh. We were then urged to don cloaks and tunics (actually old blankets) to represent the Scottish army which has defeated the Norwegians right before the start of the action.

The clever clogs among us recalled that Macbeth is full of clothing metaphors. “Our strange garments cleave not to their mould,” quipped one. “I cannot buckle my distempered cause within the belt of rule,” complained another. They agreed that the blankets of a third “hang loose about him like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief”. Transformed into extras, we made our way through a wood where, courtesy of Ricky, witches and warlocks swung from the trees and howled at us. We took our places amid the ruins of the castle, wrapped ourselves more snugly in the blankets and settled down to watch the show.

Macbeth is one of the shortest of William Shakespeare’s plays, only about half as long as Hamlet. It is action-packed to boot, with a lot of blood flowing. But it must be said that, when you listen to it in Byelorussian, it does have its longueurs. Ricky, for all his resource, had been unable to arrange for surtitles to be projected on to the walls of the castle. There were no warming draughts to be had at the interval either, because we did without an interval, which also made the whole thing seem a lot longer.

Worst of all, few of us had taken full account of the fact that Kirkcaldy at the end of August does not enjoy quite the same balmy climate as Verona or Epidaurus or other places where the classical drama is performed in the open air. It was a clear night, and as the sun descended a nippy wind whipped up from the Forth. It became cool, then chilly, then cold, finally freezing.

The blankets offered little comfort, and what with the lack of nourishment, and the Byelorussian – well, the weaker spirits decided to risk the hazards of a council scheme by night and make their own way back towards Edinburgh. I am sure we were all tempted but, as for me, I was “stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”. When one by one the fainthearted rose and slunk off into the gathering gloom, scuffles broke out among the rest of us as we tried to seize their spare blankets.

The actors never stumbled, but I had the feeling that, while they continued to rattle off their lines, they were looking sideways in astonishment as the violence transferred from the stage to the audience. Perhaps this too was part of Ricky’s scheme, a breaking down of cultural barriers? Or just a quaint old Scottish custom, on the lines of Rangers v Celtic but in semi-drag? Nothing like it ever happened in Minsk, anyway.

All this is by way of warning to Grzegorz Jarzyna and his Polish company that, when it comes to Macbeth in Edinburgh, he has his work cut out. The production he is bringing to the Festival this year is to be set in the Middle East, where there is certainly much unbridled ambition dissipating itself against a background of twisted values and social misery. Apparently it is played on four different stages at once, which should at least keep it short for those prone to doze off during the great classics.

But, for interpretations of Macbeth in particular, there have been many examples of self-defeating ambition, the very theme of the play itself. Treated as too exotic a metaphor, it can easily go astray. Orson Welles once staged the “Voodoo Macbeth”, set in Haiti to the beat of African drums. There was a production starring Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh where he wore make-up so thick and stylised that she remarked: “You hear Macbeth’s first line, then Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” There was a film adaptation with the action shifted to modern Pennsylvania, Scotland PA, where Joe Macbeth and his wife Pat take control of a hamburger joint. Another treated the story in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, using reworked music from the soundtracks of his movies. Bollywood stepped in with Maqbool, a film played out in the underworld of Mumbai.

In other words, there has never been any shortage of different Macbeths, and no reason why audiences in Scotland should especially appreciate them. As a matter of fact, the play distorts the historical reality of its leading figure, who in truth was quite a good king, if given to frittering away his resources on foreign trips. The pervading air of gloom about the piece may reflect a durable Scottish reality, but perhaps today the nation is perking up a bit. We do not want to reach the point where people say: “Oh no, not Macbeth again."

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