Review: Original Pronunciation Macbeth

In Shakespeare plays I’ve worked on, we’ve collectively gotten a completely inappropriate amount of comic mileage from the fact that some words don’t rhyme anymore. Bottom as Pyramus’s “Thy mantle good,/What, stain’d with blood!” comes to mind, or a one Touchstone’s dry recitation of Orlando’s execrable love poetry, ending with the couplet, “Heaven would that she these gifts should have,/And I to live and die her slave.” Or, one of my very favorites, and one that is definitely not meant to be as funny as I find it, the dialogue of the three witches:

      1: Where the place? 
      2:                            Upon the heath.
      3: There to meet with Macbeth. 

In Passion in Practice’s production of Macbeth, however, these lines rhyme. Founder Ben Crystal and his father David are the foremost experts in the theory of original pronunciation, a system of using textual clues to reconstruct what an Elizabethan English dialect may have sounded like. 

A “fun fact” that I’ve heard floating around is that Elizabethan English sounded more like an American Southern accent than present-day RP. I think it sounds more like some kind of demented Irish pirate. And yes, ‘heath’ and ‘Macbeth’ rhyme (they both sound like ‘beth’).
What’s more interesting is, in spite of the understandable focus on OP in the marketing, how quickly the pronunciation disappears– and what’s left is a very solid production of Macbeth. 

The fluidity with which the ensemble works together and the coherency of the storytelling is even more remarkable considering the other theory Passion in Practice tests: the idea that, because of their massive reparatory, actors in Shakespeare’s day would have learned parts on their own, and then performed essentially without rehearsal. So that is how this Macbeth was created: the actors met for brief workshops, but actually performed the play together for the first time on the night of the first performance. But the actors here seemed more confident in their delivery and more clear in their scene-to-scene storytelling than in plenty of productions I’ve seen that have rehearsed for weeks or months. 

Crystal’s Macbeth is high-strung and cerebral, turning frequently to the audience to express his disbelief or fury at events that are unfolding, one gets the sense, just a little too quickly for him to catch hold of. Lady Macbeth (Emma Pallant) is initially the more bloody minded, but when Macbeth cannot stop with just the murder of Duncan, she becomes increasingly frightened by what she has unleashed, and ultimately unhinged by this fear. 

Overall, character choices leaned heavily towards the naturalistically psychological, and textual cuts and conflations of characters often aided in this by cobbling together emotional arcs for the likes of Lennox, Ross, and even to some degree Fleance. This turned the final two acts into an interesting puzzle of alliances, and underscored Macbeth’s tyranny by allowing us to more closely track and connect to the defections of his lords. 

In a class recently, we had a lengthy discussion about the actual name of the three witches: modern editions have long emended it to the “weird sisters,” but in the actual text it is only ever spelled “weyard” or “weyward.” These words have very different implications: weird obviously suggests the supernatural, and matches Banquo and Macbeth’s descriptions of the women as unnatural and eerie. But weyward calls to mind the types of real women who were accused of witchcraft in the period: often older, single, living alone, or otherwise marginalized. This production of course does not amend to ‘weird’ (the program bills them as the “Weyward Sisters”), and though the actresses are all quite young and pretty, their half-shifty half-giddy witches seem more like unruly human women dabbling in powers that even they are slightly frightened of than the pure supernatural might of Hecate (who this production retains, the first time I’ve gotten to see her). 

Fear, in fact, might be the major emotional current of this production overall. It oddly becomes, in fact, a kind of explanation for how Macbeth gets as far as he does: after overcoming the horror of his murders of Duncan and Banquo, he enters a manic state of fearlessness, while the rest of the country descends into confusion and terror. His fate catches up to him at last, but by then he is more than ready to meet it. 

I realize it’s odd to talk about a director’s curtain speech, but I was refreshed by the lack of pretension in Crystal’s explanation of the project and its aims. They don’t claim perfect authenticity, or that their work is somehow better because it’s ‘correct’– only that it’s interesting, which it is. OP and original rehearsals are tools with which to explore the text. The play is still the thing. 

Also, fleetest Fleance (my friend Nick who I didn’t know was in the show until I got there) ever. 

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