Did Forbes fall foul of the Scottish play’s curse?
Not surprisingly, recent tributes to director Bryan Forbes have focused on his distinguished film career, only mentioning in passing the contribution he made to one of the great theatrical disasters of all time – namely, Peter O’Toole’s Macbeth at London’s Old Vic in 1980.
So hilariously over-the-top was O’Toole in the lead role that after the opening night the press dubbed the show “Macdeath” and “Macflop”. One critic said the cast sent the first-night audience home “rocking with laughter”. Meanwhile, O’Toole insisted on calling the production the Harry Lauder Show, after the music hall artist famous for overblown Caledonian roles.
Having stepped in as director at the last minute, replacing an indisposed Jack Gold, Forbes was doing O’Toole a great favour. After a 17-year absence from the stage, the performer was in need of an opportunity to re-establish his theatrical credentials, while Forbes viewed it as a way of facilitating a once-great stage actor in one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies.
To say that they both came away with egg on their faces would be an understatement. In O’Toole’s case, he came away with blood on his face, and all over the rest of his body. In the scene following the murder of Duncan, his Macbeth appeared on stage drenched in Kensington Gore to the horror and hysteria of the audience.
“From that moment onwards the play was doomed,” wrote the director in his memoir, A Divided Life, years later. “I found the whole thing too bizarre to be upset and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Peter, likewise, took it in his stride and refused to be cowed.”
Thanks to the media storm that followed, the Old Vic run was completely sold out, and the subsequent UK tour broke all box office records.
Forbes was comforted by his friend Katharine Hepburn’s reaction: “If you’re going to have a disaster, have a big one.”