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The Archive: Macbeth – the curse of he who must not be named

Timothy West, perhaps here recalling Peter O’Toole’s notorious Old Vic Macbeth, in Theatr Clwyd Company’s 1994 production of Macbeth. Photo: Phil Cutts Timothy West, perhaps here recalling Peter O’Toole’s notorious Old Vic Macbeth, in Theatr Clwyd Company’s 1994 production of Macbeth. Photo: Phil Cutts
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Superstitious at the best of times, actors of a certain age have a tendency to seethe and palpitate at the very mention of ‘the M word’ within the confines of a dressing room, making transgressors leave the room, turn around three times, spit, knock on the door three times, then beg to be let back in.

Will such shenanigans be taking place at the Bolton Octagon later this month, when Terry Deary’s family show The Macbeth Curse, a sort of Horrible Histories meets Noises Off, comes to the stage?

Its director Mark Powell says not. “We refer to Macbeth all the time, on and off the stage, rather than ‘the Scottish play’. If anything went wrong in rehearsals, we’d put it down to ‘the Macbeth curse’ but in a jokey way. The worst thing that happened was during [February’s] Storm Imogen, when a tree fell on to the roof of a school where we were performing it and took out all the electricity.”

So why is it that Macbeth has continued to strike terror into the hearts of thespians down the centuries?

In his 1981 book The Curse of Macbeth, actor-director Richard Huggett claimed the evidence was “overwhelming and indisputable” that, in using a real black magic incantation in his original text, Shakespeare had invoked an irrevocable curse.

(Clockwise from back left): Kate Spencer, Robin Hemmings, Christopher Talman and Kirsty Cox in The Macbeth Curse. Photo: Charlotte Fryer
(Clockwise from back left): Kate Spencer, Robin Hemmings, Christopher Talman and Kirsty Cox in The Macbeth Curse. Photo: Charlotte Fryer

The play was written for James I, who had in common with his subjects a morbid interest in witchcraft and all the devil’s works. Unsurprisingly Macbeth gave him the willies, and it wasn’t seen again for more than a century – apart from an expurgated musical version that was held responsible for causing England’s worst-ever storm in 1703.

Sceptics would argue that any Shakespeare play has accumulated a vast catalogue of production mishaps and blunders if you looked into its history. It’s just that actors have become accustomed to demonising Macbeth. As the director Michael Bogdanov once said: “You might as well as say all conjurors are cursed because Tommy Cooper died while he was doing his act.”

Believers in the curse cite the 1937 Old Vic production, with Laurence Olivier in the title role, when a member of the audience died of a heart attack after being hit by a fragment of Macbeth’s sword. Olivier himself was nearly killed on another occasion when a 25-pound weight crashed down from the flies.

Even more dramatic was the 1947 production at the Oldham Coliseum during which a promising young actor named Harold Norman, in the title role, staggered into the wings clutching a fatal wound after his climactic sword fight with Macduff. Norman’s ghost is said to haunt the Coliseum to this day.

The following year at Stratford came another spectacular manifestation of the mythical curse. Diana Wynyard was so certain that it was all stuff and nonsense that on opening night she insisted on playing Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene with her eyes closed. The audience gasped as she missed her footing and fell 15ft off a raised walkway. Trouper that she was, Wynyard struggled to her feet and carried on.

Macbeth is, of course, a notoriously difficult role to get right. Witness disastrous attempts by Charles Laughton (1933) and Ralph Richardson (1952), both panned by the critics of the day. So convinced was Richardson that he was miscast that he urged the Stratford box office manager to refund any dissatisfied customers.

For sheer gold-plated awfulness, I’m sure neither could hold a candle to Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1980 debacle at the Old Vic in what the star insisted on calling The Harry Lauder Show. It turned out this reference to the Scottish comedian was more apposite than he could have known, since the audience was often convulsed with laughter at the blood-soaked, melodramatic excesses on stage.

Actors in shows replaced by Macbeth came to associate it with the prospect of impending penury

Queues stretched down the Waterloo Road to see the once-revered star of Lawrence of Arabia commit professional suicide every night. However this was less to do with the dreaded curse than O’Toole’s spectacular misjudgement. He’d been given artistic control over the whole production.

The Old Vic’s then artistic director, Timothy West, who later disowned the production, recalls a meeting at which the star unveiled his ambitious plans for the design: inflatable scenery. O’Toole had flown over an Irish designer whose work he admired and installed him in a London hotel with copious supplies of whisky. West describes the unveiling of his designs in his autobiography: “The curtain rose to reveal a dimly lit collection of black plastic phalluses swaying in the wind.”

The most likely explanation for the curse of Macbeth stems from its popularity. Being traditionally the one Shakespeare play guaranteed to boost the box office, it would be rolled out by 19th-century theatre managers whenever their current production appeared to be flagging. So actors came to associate its announcement with the prospect of impending unemployment and penury.

Compared to all the murder, mayhem and jiggery-pokery, I know that’s boringly prosaic but isn’t that often the way with theatre mythology – the best stories, embellished by generations of actors, tend to be furthest from the truth.

The Macbeth Curse is on at the Bolton Octagon from April 19-23

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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