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  • Published: 7 November 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241638200
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $36.99


The Man Who Pays The Rent



Lady Macbeth

Macbeth was the reason I went into the theatre. I saw my brother Peter play King Duncan in a school production. He had to say ‘What bloody man is that?’ and I thought: My God – swearing! If this is Shakespeare this is for me.

You’ve played Lady Macbeth twice?

Yes, first at Nottingham, in 1963, and then we took the production to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Peter Brook maintained that his was the first company to tour West Africa but in actual fact it was ours.

The audiences were wonderful – very vociferous. In the sleepwalking scene a woman shouted out, ‘Oh my God, she’s washing her hands and there’s no basin.’ And they loved the rhymes, they found them hilarious. ‘The thane of Fife had a wife’ got a belter. They’d yell, ‘Say that bit again.’

It was very taxing playing outside in the heat, though. I remember seeing vultures sitting in the trees and I said to the actors, ‘For God’s sake, twitch when you’re dead, they’re waiting to eat us.’

And then Polly Adams, who played one of the witches – well, her tooth blew up and she couldn’t go on. A woman from the British Council offered to step in, said she knew the lines. But when it came to the spell around the cauldron – ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ – she forgot the words and said, ‘Wool of bat and two pork chops.’

You also played Lady Macbeth for the RSC?

Trevor Nunn, 1976, at the Other Place in Stratford. Trevor was reluctant to be involved at first, as he’d recently directed it for the main house, but Ian [McKellen] and I threatened to pull out if he wasn’t. There was no money. It was a very pared-back production. A circle of chalk on the floor and plain wooden orange boxes to sit on. We wore muted blacks and greys except for King Duncan who was all in white. I had a black dress and black boots, and it was my idea to have a black headscarf.

Were you ever frightened of the play?


There’s often a lot of superstition surrounding
Macbeth. Didn’t Roger Rees break his leg at one point?

Yes, he did – had to play Malcolm in a wheelchair. No, I don’t think I’m superstitious. I don’t like whistling in the dressing room, but then it’s usually me doing the whistling, and I always call it The Scottish Play when I’m in a theatre. We had a vicar who would occasionally sit in the front row with a crucifix. And I remember one day walking back with Trevor from the Other Place, rehearsals weren’t going very well – I think it was the bareness of the set: too exposing – and I said to him, ‘It’s not going to work, is it?’ And at that moment I fell off the pavement.

Eventually it felt very liberating to have stripped it all back. It was alarming and terribly exciting because the audience were so close. It was very intense.

We first meet Lady Macbeth reading a letter from her husband.

Yes. I suspect she’s read it many times, studied it, memorised certain passages. I may even have mumbled some of the lines.

What’s important is that you establish the couple’s passion for each other in this scene. A key line is when Macbeth refers to his wife as ‘my dearest partner of greatness’. At a time when women were perhaps not considered so equal – ‘dearest partner of greatness’ – that’s a real clue to their relationship.

In the letter, Macbeth reveals that he has met these three very strange people who have saluted him, saying, ‘Hail, King that shalt be.’ Lady Macbeth’s mind is racing. ‘Hail, King that shalt be.’ But Macbeth won’t do anything to promote himself, he lacks ambitionand ruthlessness, he’s ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’. She knows him terribly well.

And of course she’s also revealing something about herself. But I don’t think she should come on as a grim go-getter. Or an unbelievably evil woman. If she was evil she’d have no reason to conjure the spirits. You shouldn’t think straight away: ‘Oh, here’s trouble.’ You should see it growing.

Does she ever question the prophecy of the weird sisters?

I don’t think she does. And nor does he. But then remember at that time, witches and witchcraft were very much ...

God, I heard a terrible thing. D’you know Edinburgh well? At the bottom of the castle there used to be the sewers. And if somebody was accused of witchcraft they’d drag them up there and drop them in, and if they didn’t drown in all that sewerage and stuff, they’d take them out and burn them. It’s stayed with me so vividly. Don’t want to be thought of as a witch, do you?

Not in Edinburgh.

Not in Edinburgh, no. Bradford’s OK. [Laughs.]


A messenger arrives to say, ‘The King comes here tonight.’ Meaning Duncan.

The coincidence. Especially having just read that letter. It’s fortuitous, plays right into their hands. It must be so unnerving for her, mustn’t it?

The King comes here tonight.

Thou’rt mad to say it.

And that’s what’s called a pick-up line – a complete iambic pentameter which is shared. When it’s written on the page like that, that’s Shakespeare telling you to pick up your cue.


After the servant leaves you say, ‘Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.’

Now that – yes – I used to wait and listen and see if anybody was about, and then I’d kneel down to summon the spirits. And in the middle of that speech – I can’t remember at which point exactly – I would take in far too much air and become dizzy, and then quickly jump back.

She knows she’s crossed the line into something profane – gone too far meddling with witchcraft. It’s like being in the middle of a seance and discovering something unbelievably fearful. But she needs to invoke the spirits to help her – ‘fill me from the crown to the toe, top full / Of direst cruelty’. She must lose her femininity – ‘unsex me here’. Macbeth needs a push, and with the help of the spirits his wife is the one to do it. She is the spur that pricks him on.

Is it true that when Trevor was asked if the Macbeths were the Nixons—

He said, ‘No, they’re the Kennedys.’ They’re the golden couple. They adore each other. And she’ll do anything for him. If he wants to be king then it’ll come to pass. ‘You are Glamis, you are Cawdor, and we know what’s been promised next. You’re going to be the effing King, darling.’

And you’ll be the Queen.

She’s not interested in that. I don’t think she does it for herself at all. She does it for him. She’ll push him towards what she believes to be his due.

So you’ve read his letter, you’re told the King’s arriving tonight, then Macbeth

My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.

And when goes hence?

Tomorrow, as he purposes.

O never
Shall sun that morrow see.
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters.

It’s an orchestral score, isn’t it? Shakespeare tells you how to act it. Lady Macbeth completes the shared line, which shows her mind racing. And after ‘Shall sun that morrow see’ there should be a pause because it’s not a full iambic pentameter, which means you’re allowed some kind of a reaction. Peter [Hall] taught me that and it opened a huge door for me.

In that pause, I think she’s gauging what Macbeth is thinking. She sees that his mind has gone exactly where her mind has gone. She discerns naked ambition in his face, and it’s obviously shaken him to the roots. Oh God, it’s so beautifully constructed.

When she says, ‘He that’s coming’ – ‘He’ meaning King Duncan – ‘Must be
provided for’, is there anything loaded in that word ‘provided’?

Oh, I think so. They’re speaking in code. It’s chilling.

He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.

She finishes the speech with a rhyme. Does that mean she wants to put an end to the conversation?

Could be. Or maybe the rhyme makes it more conclusive, all the more likely to happen. And she hasn’t chosen the word ‘sovereign’ by accident.


Lady Macbeth welcomes King Duncan. But she’s alone. No Macbeth.

Well, he’s mucking about in his room, isn’t he, getting frightened and nervous? But there would have been nothing odd about her greeting Duncan by herself. Duncan’s her cousin. She says later, ‘Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.’ They’re family.

Which makes it even more abhorrent that she can contemplate killing him.

You bet.

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