Ahead of the Macbeth season, Simon Phillips tells us why classic stories speak to our times.
Can you tell us about the role Shakespeare has played in your life?
I became acquainted with Shakespeare really early on. We had the complete works at home and I started reading it when I was quite young. I always felt like I had an inroad to it. I just connected to it on a kind of blood level. I was such a nerd, I used to listen to recordings of the plays like other people listened to pop music. Auckland University did an outdoor Shakespeare every year so I would partake in that … it’s just always been part of my life. The verse reverberates so vividly and the plays get to the heart of humanity with such muscular theatricality – it’ll always be my first theatre love.
You have most recently directed Hamlet (2011) and Richard III (2010) for MTC, both of which were modernised adaptations – can we expect something similar for Macbeth?
Yes, I generally feel with Shakespeare, if what the audience is seeing makes immediate sense to them, it helps with the language. So if the visual language is immediately accessible, then the complexities of Shakespearean text, which can be daunting sometimes, are made a little bit easier. Macbeth is particularly interesting, because it can sit comfortably in a few periods of history. There are plenty of contemporary examples of highly mythologised, broadsword stories, like Game of Thrones, so right now the original period might actually be quite popular. In contemporary productions [Macbeth] is most often and obviously applied to the great dictators of the 20th century and the connections there are certainly compelling, but in the end I just thought I might as well take the plunge and bring [this adaptation] slam bang into 2017.
Macbeth lives in a world of witches and ghosts and eerie happenings, but the story is also set in a real time and place – 11th century Scotland. How mythologised will your production of Macbeth be?
Well, in 11th century Scotland, as in Shakespeare’s England, witches and ghosts were considered very real parts of life. I do think the supernatural elements present a dilemma for any contemporary version of the play, because we no longer have that general belief in the supernatural. But I think it’s a mistake to try and entirely rationalize the supernatural elements of this play. There’s a certain thrill in Macbeth being given prophecies that then come to pass. Obviously some of these prophecies Macbeth has a hand in. If someone tells you you’re going to be king, not everyone goes off and kills the king. But Macbeth does. In other words he himself ensures that that prophecy comes true. But later in the play he’s given supernatural warnings that he has no control over, and they prove to be his ultimate undoing. I don’t want that to be washed out of the play.
Shakespeare’s language can be dense and hard to digest for first time audiences – will this production be accessible to new audiences and young people?
I think it’s a good Shakespeare for young people. It’s very fast moving, it’s visceral in its movement and it has a great spookiness about it. There are a lot of very gripping elements. One of my abiding rules when I’m approaching Shakespeare is that I like to think of young people going into it; of it being an experience for them. I think of the school kids sitting in the audience and try to make sure they’re not bored. And I figure that quite a lot of my adult audiences might be in the same boat – people who were put off Shakespeare when they were at school. I’m trying to make it visually and intrinsically exciting for these people. In that respect I guess the more obvious thrills lie in the play’s military sequences, its incidents of violence and of course the witches. But the most brilliantly observed sections of the play are about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. It’s so superbly elucidated and conceived, I always say that if you took away the fact they were grappling with the decision to kill someone or not, and made it a more everyday dilemma, then the gender politics and the relationship politics that go on are totally contemporary. They defy time, they’re so strongly drawn. I do think it’s a gripping show that young people will love.
Macbeth is an exceptionally violent story. Are you interested in exploring the human nature of violence?
I think the play is predicated on an acceptance that people are violent. Violence doesn’t make them good or bad per se. In fact, one could argue that what makes the play a tragedy is that it’s about about a great soldier, who makes a terrible leader. I think what the play examines is what makes people commit a crime against humanity and the ramifications of that crime. And the escalating corruption of power. The idea that there is violence in the world is not something the play is at odds with. It begins and ends in battle. The issue is an unjust crime and unjust violence. The battles at the beginning and end are justified for the protagonists, but what Macbeth does – both to win power and maintain it – is not. It’s a terrible crime, it unravels his conscience, and it unravels the conscience of his wife.
Why do you think humans like to watch the dismantling or complete disintegration of another human?
We like to see people reaping the rewards or suffering the consequences of their actions. I think so often in life we don’t see that. We see people doing great things and not necessarily getting the acknowledgement they deserve for them. Or we see great injustices being perpetrated and the offender not being punished; or at least we feel as though they’re not being punished. We see people behaving very badly and not being held to account. So I think that in drama, or in any form of storytelling really, what’s comforting is that people get their just desserts. They reap the rewards or the consequences of their actions. And here we have the fascination of watching people do something that they know to be wrong. They know it’s wrong even as they are doing it. Watching that come unstuck, with the added juice of seemingly impossible premonitions in Macbeth, makes for great drama.
Do you have a favourite line from the play?
There are so many that resonate with me. It’s jam-packed with the most amazing metaphors. Of course everyone knows the ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. But in that same area of the play he says ‘My way of life is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf’ – isn’t that wonderful? At the beginning of the play he says ‘I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition,’ and then half way through, chillingly, he says ‘I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ So the entire progress of his journey is expressed in these compelling images.
I’m sure you know of all the theatre superstitions surrounding this Scottish play – including the belief that Shakespeare himself put a curse on it so that only he could direct it. Do you believe in superstitions?
I don’t think of myself as a very superstitious person, which is probably asking for something terrible to happen. I always thought one of the most attractive arguments for why Macbeth was supposed to be unlucky was because it was always Shakespeare’s most popular play, so if a theatre company announced a production of Macbeth it was a signal to the actors that the company was in financial trouble. I don’t mean the current production of course – MTC’s in magnificent shape – but historically the reason it was known for being unlucky was in fact because it was lucky, and a cash cow for theatre companies. That said, I’ve heard plenty of doom-laden Macbeth anecdotes, but I’m hoping we avoid them in this case.
What are you most looking forward to about Macbeth at MTC in 2017?
I just can’t wait to get my teeth stuck into some Shakespeare again. It kind of refuels me. And I’ve got a great company lined up – I’m excited to work with Jai [Courtney] and indeed all these terrific actors – so I think we’re all rearing to go; to see how visceral and exciting we can make it.
Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.