Dan Spielman

Feature | Dan Spielman on playing Macduff

Ahead of the Macbeth season, Dan Spielman focuses solely on the text.

What is Macbeth about?

We’ve talked a lot about thresholds and how we’re presented with circumstances or a choice. The psychological component of the play opens up, and in relation to Macbeth particularly, we see someone struggling with the threshold between where things stand now, and where they might stand after a given action. That’s true of many characters in the play. There’s a state of the world that worsens, or an event which changes the outlook of any given person, and they have to make a choice. It’s sort of by a thousand cuts that these things happen, that’s how it’s human rather than only supernatural. There are these examinations of how, broken down, you can see how someone might make these choices to further themselves and find themselves on a slippery slope.

Equivocation is something that is very present in the language, introduced by the witches and the supernatural, it’s an examination of what state you need to be unsure, ethically or morally – which way to go. Macduff doesn’t equivocate, he’s impulsive. He also has these thresholds that he’s forced through into deeper and deeper places. In the structure of the play, he has to kind of meet the immensity of Macbeth’s collapse with another kind of immensity – he’s got to go through a series of things to get there – but he doesn’t equivocate, he just impulsively acts. The idea of equivocation, of ambivalence, of grey area, of choices being difficult to make, is very present.

How do you embody your characters?

I don’t tend to take a Stanislavski/backstory approach. Particularly with Shakespeare, I think the first thing is the language – the first thing, and probably the last thing really, is to clear things out of the way of the language. In this case, as in most work, to find the simplicity, is actually really hard to do, because lots of things get in the way. There’s lots of provocations that texts like this make, which makes you want to do this or that, but I’ve found that even in the first two and a half weeks if you approach trying to unlock the text from the point of view from some idea of a character, it inhibits the path through the text, and I don’t think for the purposes of the argument that there are really characters in Shakespeare, like there isn’t subtext, there’s only text. I don’t mean to be flippant, there are magical areas to what we do, there are choices that we make, we are people, so we use ourselves to flesh all this out, but a lot of that is secret and doesn’t really bare a lot of formalisation. I don’t really approach it from the point of view of ‘what’s his backstory?’

What was your first experience with Shakespeare?

We studied Shakespeare at school in English, so I was exposed to it in an academic context. I was a lover of language, but it wasn’t until we started putting them on stage that I had a completely different experience of the language – it really inspired my connection to the language. The first production we did at school was Hamlet, and that was when I fell in love with the text, with the writing.

Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.

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