The actor talks about drawing on his Jacques Lecoq physical theatre training to create a shape-shifting Witch in our latest production of Macbeth.
When did you first encounter this play?
It was while I was at secondary school in Fife that I first studied the text in English lessons, and through drama that I experienced the play in performance. We performed it as our school play, I had the role of Lennox and discovered what a complex character he is. We also explored Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene while I was studying at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris, using a grotesque chorus of bouffons to magnify the tragic dynamics of her speech.
What productions of the play have you particularly enjoyed?
I'm fond of the RSC's filmed 1976 production and of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, and more recently I enjoyed Kathryn Hunter embodying all three witches. I once toured with a three-hander version of Macbeth to China and Cyprus, in which the weird sisters took on all the other roles.
Shakespeare leaves the text open to interpretation. Is this true of the images you create on stage?
Yes, I think the opening of the play, the witches’ first appearance, arose from the text “the earth hath bubbles as the water has, and these are of them”. We struggle upwards from below ground and are birthed onto the stage. Some of our actions and intentions are purposefully left quite open to audience interpretation. In the Lady Macduff scene we bring puppets to life, only to be torn away from them by forces much larger than ourselves, and during the interval you see us listening to and reading changes in the space around us, keeping sensitive to subtle signals from our environment...
How does the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage work for your performance?
I love the RST space, it's so intimate and playful. The principal characters of our story play on the audience's level, but the witches help to emphasise a vertical, tragic dimension: emerging from beneath the stage and flying up. The playing space feels porous, and we often emerge from the upstage back wall or lurk and watch the plot unfold from the voms [diagonal paths that led from the stage through the auditorium].
How do you collaborate with the musicians on stage as characters in the story?
The musicians appear before we do, as shadows. Their intense drones rouse us in the opening scene, and this music continues to charge and guide us throughout the play. We follow them. Their music creates a platform which supports the incantation of our text, and at times our breath and actions blend with their rhythms until we collectively become the channel for one big voice.
How was the costume decided?
It is meant to be feral, bestial, and difficult to immediately categorize. The long hair can also help to transform our outlines, making strange new shapes as our weird trio shift and merge.
What discoveries have you made about the play?
The text is magic. Each line in this play contains very concrete, rhythmic language, and there's so much strong, complex imagery which corresponds to reality as experienced through the messy lens of heightened emotion. I've learned that if this emotional core remains solid and forward-driving in our storytelling, then an audience is more than happy to experience moments of explicit theatricality and shifts of register. It's such a powerful text, and if we invest in it we can also afford to take big risks in performance so that the audience leaves the theatre thinking about what they have just seen. Hopefully some of these moments really resonate, and then the final act can be the discussion (or argument!) on the journey home!
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.