The Macbeths’ imagination is what makes the couple great, yet it also destroys them. By Andy McLean.
Day one in the rehearsal room. I’m sitting alone when I feel it for the first time. That tiny crackle of energy. Of possibility. Before me, a ring of empty chairs face in towards each other. Looming in the background, a makeshift stage waits in silent anticipation, shrouded in a black curtain.
Soon, this empty space will be filled by a small group of actors. A line here, a gesture there and, little by little, piece by piece, their ideas will form something that is, at once, fragile yet formidable; real yet imaginary.
Together, they will summon the dark spirit of Macbeth.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. By day six, the energy is bouncing off the walls. Actors are leaping, falling, yelling, and gasping. On day 10, we hear incantations. Day 16, dancing and joyous laughter. Day 17, manic laughter. By day 26, the room is humming with camaraderie, confidence, and just the right frisson of nerves.
On the final day, a hush returns to the rehearsal room. A clock ticks. The future can be felt in this instant. And from here, the actors’ collective energy reaches out directly to you, in the theatre, right now, reading these very words.
How has this energy been transmitted? Through imagination. The performers’ imagination. The creatives’ imagination. The (long-dead) writer’s imagination. And the audience’s imagination. Because you’re an accomplice now, too.
Why do we channel this imagination? Because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth demand it. They depend upon it. Imagination is what tempts them, toys with them, and sends them tumbling towards ruin disguised as greatness.
In our play, Macbeth begins imagining his future as soon as the witches invite him to do so. And when he writes to tell Lady Macbeth, she’s similarly transfixed: “Thy letters have transported me beyond / this ignorant present”. From here on, their minds cease to exist in the present.
They obsess over if, how and when they will kill Duncan. As soon as they achieve their “vaulting ambition”, they fret about when Duncan’s body will be discovered and how to cover their tracks. But having secured the crown, they cannot enjoy the moment. For them, “ordinary life is suddenly arrested”; their attention must race forwards, trying to eliminate every possible future threat to their status. That is, except when guilt drags their minds backwards, reliving their crimes.
As for the audience, in this play we see Macbeth in our imagination before he even steps foot on stage. Three supernatural sisters say they’re destined to meet Macbeth after a battle. Then one of his brothers in arms paints us a blood-soaked portrait of a formidable, all-conquering military leader.
So, right from the start, our imagination is fired up and ready for The Tragedy of Macbeth; a play where extraordinary moments occur that are seen by some, yet unseen by others.
In the audience, we don’t see the evil spirits that Lady Macbeth invokes. We don’t see the execution of the original Thane of Cawdor. We don’t see “the airborne dagger” that leads Macbeth towards Duncan’s chamber. But Shakespeare’s vivid language, and our imagination, make us feel like we have.
Similarly, we don’t hear the “lamentings heard in the air” nor the “strange screams of death” that are reported the night before Duncan’s murder, and only Macbeth hears the voice that tells him he “hath murdered sleep”. But our imagination makes us believe these things to be true.
Perhaps what is most unsettling for the audience, though, is when we enter the Macbeths’ imagination. The witches are visible only to Macbeth, Banquo, and us. Banquo’s ghost with its “gory locks” can only be seen by Macbeth and us. And when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, only we in the audience know that it is Duncan’s blood she sees in her nightmare; only we understand the fragments of past conversations that she is reliving.
With such access to the Macbeths’ imaginations, we are the sole witness to the pollution of the couple’s mental states. We see their minds descend from being “rapt in the wonder” of the witches’ prophesies, to being “full of scorpions”. We understand why, at a dinner table full of friends, the King and Queen of Scotland feel utterly alone. We know the psychological damage that propels a formidable warrior and his fiercely intelligent wife towards madness and death.
So, as you take your seat today: brace yourself. The moment before the play begins, when the theatre goes black, you’ll feel it too. That little crackle of energy. Of possibility.
Here we are, a room full of strangers, ready to let our imaginations run away with us. Just be careful what you wish for.
Andy McLean is a writer who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, before following the Bard to London. Unlike Shakespeare, he now lives in Sydney.