Sunday 18 January 2015

Interplay #8 - Pericles in the Original Pronunciation

Interplay #8 - Pericles in the Original Pronunciation - will be a world premiere - in three very different ways.

It’s the first contemporary production of Shakespeare’s late-play Pericles in Original Pronunciation, the accent his actors spoke in, based on research by the renowned linguist, scholar (and my father) Prof David Crystal, OBE, at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004.

Original Pronunciation, or OP, is considered by modern audiences to be easier to understand than Shakespeare spoken in a modern English accent. The Tragedy of Pericles, Prince of Tyre was an collaboration with a young colleague of Shakespeare's in 1608, and an exploration with his actors of voyage, self-discovery, romance and reunion.

It will be underscored using a modern reworking by Max Richter of one of Vivaldi’s most famous works: a recomposition that remains faithful to the original score, while taking riffs or themes and ‘tinkering' around with them. My Shakespeare Ensemble has a similar process in theatre: our exploration is to recreate - as fully as we can - a modern incarnation of Shakespeare’s company of actors, who worked together full time for two decades. They would have been Shakespeare’s understanders as has not been seen before or since. 

Shakespeare would have adapted his company to today's laws. An example: in this modern world I believe Shakespeare would have welcomed female actors to his company, illegal in his day. I believe he would have let us cut his text to the best ’two hours’ traffic’ - a time-frame suggested in the Chorus to Romeo and Juliet - just as his own company once did. And I think he would have welcomed faithful innovation to tell his stories as clearly as possible - a quality in our productions we feel counter-balances the concept-driven Shakespeare that has popularised the world. This production of Pericles will not be set on the moon, on a cruise-ship, or in the 1920s: the setting will be the Berwaldhallen, the audience above and around us, with a chamber orchestra nestled with us, on stage.

We will rehearse in our usual manner, as our Elizabethan counterparts used to: each actor only receiving their 'cue-script' - the words they say, and their cues for when to say them - but never reading the entire play. So we will rehearse together, but will not speak the play whole to each other until we perform it for the first time in front of our audience on the 29th January. 

Instead, we will explore how we can best serve both the music, this new-old accent we call OP, and the text - the latter filled with 'Dumb-Showes', non-verbal scenarios of action that takes place, all narrated by the Chorus figure of Gower, the Medieval English poet Shakespeare reincarnates to tell this most wonderful of stories.

And finally, Interplay #8 will take the name of SRSO conductor Daniel Harding’s Festival, Interplay, quite literally, and explore those magical moments when the musicians follow the actors, the actors follow the musicians, or the rarer times when both are led by something Other, and unwished for, there comes an Interplay between us. 

It is going to be quite a night at the Berwaldhallen this January 29th. Do come & join us.

Ben Crystal
The Shakespeare Ensemble

Further details via the Swedish Radio Symphony Website

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Winter's Tale - 28th June-4th July

I'm currently directing Winter's Tale for the E15 MA final project.

The remit given was: 90mins, in the round, ensemble, Shakespeare-deconstructed.

Being somewhat of a fan of simple, on-the-nose, straight-forward, non-concept Shakespeare, I was with it right up until the last one. But, always a fan of a challenge, and right before taking OP to the Globe's new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I liked the idea of going to the other end of my comfort zone, and completely ripping Shakespeare apart while still working the rehearsal techniques I've been developing with my ensemble, which relies on solid verse speaking combined with an extensive physical methodology and attention to stagecraft.

Now, I'm used to cutting Shakespeare, but the extant play of Winter's Tale is 3362 lines long.

Full of meaty, image-rich verse written at the height of Shakespeare's metrical prowess the dialogue sparkles so close to speech, and the prose seems to be like prosaic verse, or poetic prose, like some parts of Pericles.

The accepted standard is 1,000 lines of Shakespeare spoken per hour, so after forming and training the ensemble, the challenge was to devise out 80 minutes (always nice to finish under time) out of the flu play, which meant we were allowed a maximum of 1100 lines or so.
  • Do we lose Bohemia? (yes, almost entirely)
  • How do we solve the bear? (we decided it should be scary...)
  • What do we do with the statue, when you're in the round?

The last was a noodle-scratcher, but while prepping for the SWP events at the Globe next month, which will all be candlelit, I thought about how they would have solved the statue issue at the Blackfriars, back when Winter's Tale was first performed.

It's easier in a huge proscenium theatre. Put Hermione deep upstage, as far away from the audience as possible, and if she moves it'll be imperceptible. But in the Blackfriars, or the Globe's Sam Wanamaker, the slightest movement would read from the back row of the upper gallery.

But. It's candlelit. The flickering light makes statues come alive, I thought.

 So we've forged a rather beautiful, candle-lit, Tale, with a melting statue of wax. Continuing the exploration of the Chorus in modern Shakespeare over the last year, I've used the Chorus of Time to fracture the play, as we follow this tragedy-with-a-potentially-good-ending.

It opens on Saturday 28th in the Cockpit Theatre (north of Marylebone, central London) and plays on in rep until 4th July:

Do please come if you can.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Shakespeare Week // The Telegraph // March 2014

A version of this piece was published online in The Telegraph, March 19th 2014

This March, I’m an ambassador for Shakespeare Week (no sash, unfortunately). 

I've been acting, writing about, producing, teaching, and running workshops on Shakespeare for the last 15 years, and I’m often asked why should we teach our younglings his works? I can answer with my own experiences. 

I did terribly at Shakespeare in English Literature, and struggled to get essay marks higher than a C. But years of character parts in musicals had finally gotten me noticed by a director, who was starting up a repertory company, and I started acting Shakespeare at the beginning of my A-Levels. 

By the time I had left for university I had acted in two Shakespeare plays, and auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and the Manchester Youth Theatre (both unsuccessfully and then successfully) with monologues from the canon.
Acting Shakespeare - Ariel, in The Tempest - outside in a new stone amphitheatre with perfect acoustics, for the most part to an audience new to the play, and for many of my fellow am-dram actors the first time we’d got to roll those words round our mouths, softening with time like a gobstopper, in front of an audience. 

It was there I had my Road to Damascus moment, for the biblically-minded out there, or caught my first Shakespeare wave, for the surfily-minded out there. It was the first time it made sense.
Out there, covered in gold makeup, freezing my under-developed ginger pectorals off in the September North Welsh rain, Shakespeare made sense, and I fell hard and fast in love with acting his words.
From that moment on, I’ve never had too difficult a time understanding Shakespeare, acting it, teaching it, explaining it to others, or writing about it. I can take apart a speech in a dozen different ways, and I spend a lot of my time working out how to articulate how we are guided by Shakespeare towards the way he might have wanted it to be spoken, and then attempting to articulate all this in the printed word.
I still have little to no idea how to analyse a piece from a literary-critical point of view. I have a feeling I’d still get a C, despite the 15 years experience. It makes sense to me watching it in a theatre (even if the production’s bad) and it makes sense to me when I’m acting it, or helping others work out how to act it. I struggle to make it make sense on the page.
The key fits the lock, the engine growls, the car roars into life, when acted. It’s what the words were written for.
Shakespeare is the reason I don’t work a 9-5. He’s the reason I’m miserable sometimes, and he’s often the reason I laugh hard. He’s the reason I earn less money than I could, and he’s the reason my life is sometimes a shambles. But I get to work with the best English language playwright most days of my life, and I consider myself blessed for that.
Shakespeare teaches me something new about life every time I speak it, because I’m a day older than the last time I looked at it, and so the words resonate differently to me. A 13 year old girl can tell me more about what its like to be Juliet than I can ever teach her. And the sooner you discover that speaking Shakespeare is fun, the sooner you can pick up one of his scripts (something that has been worked on in a similar way by thousands of artists before you). 
Then, if you learn the words by mind, and find a way to speak them by heart in such a believable way that you activate that special part of your audiencesbrains and engage their suspension of disbelief, and maybe make them laugh or cry - well, what a wonderful thing to do.
And for so long, like so many others, I hated his works. We need to cut off the Medusa head before the snake-hair sprouts, because by the time students get to secondary school, an antipathy towards Shakespeare has often already set in, almost by osmosis.
In reaching out to over 1500 primary schools, Shakespeare Week is the perfect project to encourage our younglings to speak and love Shakespeare, free from analytical study. 

Come on board, join in, bring a treasure chest of writing to the next generation of Shakespearians.


My Top 5 Ways to Engage Kids in Shakespeare 

Quote it!

Whether it be telling your son he's a tower of strength, or your daughter does something all of a sudden, you're quoting Shakespeare. He brought over 1,000 words and phrases to the English Language that we still use today. 

Globe it!

Take your children to one of the touring productions c/o Shakespeare's Globe. Legs might get tired standing at their home on the South Bank in London, but you can take a picnic and sit in the sun to enjoy the riotous, fun touring productions. This year it's the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

 Shout it!

Boy did Shakespeare know how to insult people! By comparison, our vocabulary is fairly four-letter limited. Shakespeare's Insult Kit (c/o Chris Seidel) is a harmless, inventive and fun way to introduce your kids to the richness of his words. Get to it, thou artless, bat-fowling bugbear!

Explore it!

Pick a play. A nice fun one like A Midsummer Night's Dream, or a dark and bloody one like Macbeth, and explore some of those rich, vivid characters. Go to a nearby park or wood and pretend to be Witches and Faeries for half-an-hour. It's what Shakespeare's actors would once have done.

See it!

Whether it be a Manga cartoon adaptation, or Shakespeare's Animated Tales, some of the Bard's best works have been given a modern flavour. While simplified - and no replacement for The Real Thing - my 8 year old nephew adores them!

Wednesday 9 October 2013

FHM piece - Shakespeare & flirt-texting

In September 2013, I was asked to write a piece for FHM on the Dos and Don'ts of text-flirting, and what the great writers had to say. Here's the piece in full:

For a flirty text how important is brevity? How long is the ideal length?
Try too hard, she'll think you desperate. Don't try hard enough, she'll think you weak. Say too much and you'll bore her, joke too much and she'll think you're a clown. And always remember, as Shakespeare said,

Brevity is the soul of wit.

So anything longer than a Tweet (140 characters) is too long. This is a wooing, not PhD thesis. Be brief, simple, to the point. Too many relationships start, continue and explode with texts. A text message is the means to the end - being in the same room together.

How best to make yourself seem intriguing? What sort of language is best to use?
Shakespeare suggests

Speak low if you speak love

The modern meaning of 'low' is gently, briefly, and with humility. From the heart, in other words. You'll never know how far a simple line like

You looked beautiful today

will take you until you try it. And definitely don't brag about yourself along the

It's hard to be humble when you're as great as me

kind of line. It'll get you ignored faster than junkmail.

And what sort of language is best to avoid?
As Lord Byron once wrote

So, we'll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

Translation - never text late at night, and certainly not drunk. And do NOT take Charles Bukowski's advice to elicit a response:

If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.

Is it in fact better to send texts which you HAVEN'T poured over for hours? If the text seems like the result of hard work does that put people off?
I've spent what seemed like hours over how to phrase an initial text to a woman I like:

Hey, how're you?
Hey how are you?! X
Hey, how's it going? :-)
Hey, howzit? x
Hi, I want to see you!!! XXX

One kiss or none? Two or one big X? A smiley like :) or like :-) ?

Irony is hard to get across without a voice backing it up, and sarcasm is practically impossible. Avoid both. Leave out the smileys, drop the howzit and goin' type slang, never use more multiple exclamation marks, and show willing with a final 'x'. So don't think too long or too hard, and try not to follow Oscar Wilde's poetic technique:

I worked all day on a poem. In the morning I added a comma. In the afternoon I took it out again.

Spending an hour on a three word response will end with her thinking you're mad or ignoring her.

Oh, and for goodness sakes, make sure you haven't left in any spelling mistakes. Women want men to love not boys to teach.

Is it wrong to overload your flirty texts with adjectives? Will it make the writing seem clumsy?
Women like to be complimented, but take advice again from our Bard Shakespeare:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind

So I probably wouldn't take Edmund Spenser's line, making actual make direct reference to your lady's assets. Lips, breasts and, indeed, paps should probably be left out.

Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame vncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,

Direct, and to the point seems best, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge tried:

You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light

This sounds basic, but it's important: how to write something romantic? Something that a girl would actually think was attractive and not creepy/lame? What have the great romantic writers in the past shown us with regards to manipulating (in the nicest possible way) the hearts of the opposite sex.

Surprise and romance is key. I'm a romantic, and while some women can be surprised by what is generally considered a long-dead tradition, a touch of direct sweetness can go a long way. A lot of writers played hard, fast and loud. But softly softly catchee. As the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell once wrote:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

That said, it didn't stop Shakespeare. He wrote a pretty desperate run of 17 sonnets trying to convince someone to procreate, arguing it would be a sin for his love's beauty not to continue:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest 

Now is the time that face should form another

Don't be lewd, rude, or be too forward (save that for after you've taken each other's clothes off). Whatever you say, the response you're looking for is 'Ah' rather than 'Ew!'

The thing that everyone wants to avoid in texts is sounding desperate. But is there a GOOD way to express desperation? If you're desperate to see someone, and you express it in  an appropriate way, can it actually be quite attractive?
Don't be like Thomas McGrath, you'll scare them away - especially the kind of I'LL DIE WITHOUT YOU talk of death:

You'll look at least on love's remains, 

A grave's one violet: 
Your look?-that pays a thousand pains. 

What's death?-You'll love me yet!

Other lines probably best avoided, even if you think they sound great in your head:

That's so funny! You remind me of my mother / ex-girlfriend.
Gotta go, off to drink my weight in cider!
God I hate romantic comedies.

Even a well-meaning

I'd like to take you shopping

Can be mis-interpreted as 'You've no style / you're overweight / you dress like my Gran'.

Honesty and, to thine own self be true (Shakespeare yet again) seems to be the way forward. You don't have to be a poet, or hugely original. If you've never felt this way before, and you had a great night, then tell her

I've never felt this way before. Thanks for a great night.

If she likes The Devil Wears Prada and you actually don't mind watching it, it really is ok to admit it (to her, perhaps not your friends down the pub). Wearing your heart on your sleeve, as in the most famous of love poems, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, is a great piece of double-thinking.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Sounds like a good line doesn't it? But nah, he goes on to say, summer is too hot, itchy, boring, and it ends.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade...

You're better than a summer's day. With you it's summer every day.

Take an (autumn) leaf out of e.e. cumming's book:

Your slightest look easily will unclose me

Or indeed, women perhaps know best. The great love poet Emily Dickinson:

Were I with thee, 
Wild nights should be 
Our luxury!

If you're texting, it's unlikely the object of your affections is across the room. And our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, takes us straight to the heart of the matter:

I want you and you are not here...
Wherever you are now, inside my head you fix me with a look...
I hold you closer, miles away, inventing love

Monday 5 August 2013

Programme notes for Branagh's Macbeth

In January 2013, I held my breath and sent Ken Branagh the draft of my Springboard Shakespeare: Macbeth. With his production planned for the Manchester International Festival in July that year, I hoped he might flip through it. 

I was called a week later. He had been reading everything he could lay his hands on about this dark play, and apparently so much of what I'd said in my book matched his ideas. Would I consider writing something for the production's programme?

The following is the text they printed, part of which I adapted from my Springboard Shakespeare series...

The be-all and end-all
Actor and writer Ben Crystal sheds a 21st-century light on the darkness of the Scottish Play

Macbeth: image-famous for witches, a floating dagger, and the midnight murder of a Scottish king.
Beyond these, it’s a blood-soaked play with unspeakable brutality – throat-slitting, decapitation, the killing of an innocent mother and child (nothing less than horrific), the murder of people while they sleep, the splitting of someone from stomach to jawbone with a sword, and a few other deaths that make the on- and off-stage body count at least a dozen.

There are bloody ghosts, witches, and figures from the Greek underworld, all ideas that would have brought terror to the minds of Shakespeare’s audience. Characters hallucinate, are drugged, and are so terrified of their leader that they flee from their home and country. Some are so opposed to the dictator-like, tyrannical killing of innocents that they raise an army and go to war.

Pixies, faeries & ghosts
For Shakespeare’s audience at the Globe in 1606, the presence of witches and the main plotline of killing a king were topical as well as terrifying. Macbeth was first performed in a period of persecution now known as the European Witch Craze, during which many women (and men) were put under trial and executed under suspicion of witchcraft.

In 1603, the Scottish King James VI acceded the English throne as King James I. A few years earlier, he had written a book about witches. And in 1605, a few months before Macbeth was first performed, he survived an assassination attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. (Indeed, the word ‘assassination’ was coined by Shakespeare for this play. As I say, topical.)

The King or Queen was officially considered to be God’s voice on Earth and the removal of the rightful monarch meant anarchy, that the skies would darken and fall. Superstition was so powerful that the existence of pixies, faeries and ghosts were a commonly held belief, while an equally religious world thought earthquakes were the punishing Hand of God. Written in that fearful time, this is a play that asked questions about political and social instability: about how far someone will go for power, and what that can cost...

Macbeth and the canon
As he did for many of his plays, Shakespeare took the basic plot for Macbeth from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Britain. The second edition of Chronicles appeared in 1587, around the time Shakespeare came to London to begin his theatrical career.
In some respects, the play is a re-run of his earlier Richard III (written c.1592) and Julius Caesar (c.1599): the first half features a slow build-up towards the murder of the rightful leader, with the second half concentrating on the emotional and psychological fallout of such actions. It’s a structure that has inspired many imitations on stage and screen; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, for instance, follows a similar path.

Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale followed – titanic works, each exploring the fall of a good man, but from a slightly different angle each time. Othello suffers at the hands of another, Lear is foolish, and Leontes (in The Winter’s Tale) is susceptible to jealousy, as we all are. However, like Richard III before him, Macbeth becomes a tyrant, a killer of innocents.

Macbeth is an incredible character. He experiences a rocket-rise to absolute power via murder, then plummets into absolute disaster, a roller-coaster ride turned runaway train. He’s the loyal soldier who embraces his inner darkness, reaching a point of near-insanity through megalomania, paranoia and greed, and who swings from uncertain weakness to a Superman-like conviction of invincibility.

The Macbeths
If Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings had taken the Ring and Arwen had turned to Mordor, he would have become Macbeth, and she, Lady. Macbeth, essentially, takes the Ring. Whatever his actual years, he doesn’t seem to have acquired the wisdom that usually comes with age to see past the Witches’ equivocation; instead, he believes the Witches and is terrified by Banquo’s Ghost. He becomes paranoid to the point of excluding everyone from his side, apart from a character called Seyton (pronounced, like the devil, ‘Satan’).

In the second half of the play, Macbeth feels like a man with nothing left to lose. However, pity for him is often reignited during his final encounter with Macduff, as all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. He makes for a great and dramatic figure: someone who’s profoundly aware he’s trapped in a downward spiral and decides to plunge headlong down anyway.

Lady Macbeth is different. We watch as she embraces her own darkness and see her being left far behind her husband, having encouraged him to engage with his own inner demons, before losing her mind in a living waking-dream.

Macbeth is a tragedy driven forward not by a solitary figure but a married couple. Some productions have made the Macbeths an overtly sexual couple, while others have tried to suggest that their strength – or ensuing disintegration – comes from having lost a baby. They only have a few scenes together, but in that time, we need to believe they’re a couple in a strong relationship, that they could plot and carry out a murder together.

I like Macbeth. He’s a weird animal, the character of a warrior with a very poetic heart. The verse Shakespeare wrote for him is muscular and erratic, and its imagery is incredibly powerful. From the terrifying:

O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.

To the child-like rhyming:

I will not be afraid of Death and Bane
Till Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

To the near-suicidal:

I ’gin to be a-weary of the Sun
And wish th’estate o’th world were now undone.

To elegiac reflection:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

There’s a hauntingly tragic moment when, having murdered Duncan, Macbeth tells his wife:

Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder Sleep’...

He’s describing the medical condition of insomnia – a term that isn’t recorded in English until 1623, when ‘insomnie’ was defined as ‘watching; want of power to sleepe’. Oddly enough, bearing in mind what happens to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the four stages of the rare condition called fatal familial insomnia are now known to be as follows:

1 – Up to four months of sleeplessness; panic attacks, phobias and paranoia.
2 – Around five months of severe panic attacks and hallucinations.
3 – For up to three months, a complete inability to sleep followed by rapid weight loss.
4 – Over the next six months: dementia, a lack of physical or verbal response to others, and eventually death.

Other symptoms of long-term sleep loss include menopause in women and impotence in men. Both are fascinating possible character choices, especially considering Lady Macbeth’s reference to losing a child. She lambasts Macbeth’s manliness, prompting him to respond, ‘I dare do all that may become a man’, and, after seeing Banquo’s Ghost, his proclamation that ‘I am a man again’.

Shakespeare’s lines
Shakespeare writes prose, a theatrical reflection of everyday speech, and he writes poetry, organising a character’s speech into rhythmical lines of verse. He uses this verse to direct his actors, bringing out the traits of their characters through the type of lines they speak.

In Macbeth, the distinction between prose and verse, and between different kinds of verse, has a hugely dramatic role. Most of the characters in Macbeth speak in verse – only 6.5 per cent of the lines in the play are prose. The play has this rhythm pounding through it like a heartbeat, albeit an irregular one that changes its pace. Drops of earthy base prose are scattered throughout, stopping and starting the rhythms like a jazz trumpeter improvising.

We hear the Porter, the Scottish Doctor and Lady Macbeth’s Waiting-gentlewoman speak in prose, as well as Lady Macduff and her Son; the Witches, too, from time to time. Prose, closest to everyday speech, is the medium that Shakespeare’s lower-class characters normally use.

The Scottish noblemen and the Witches both speak in verse, but they do so in very different ways. The noblemen use the form of verse that was most popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime: iambic pentameter. This is a rhythmical line with ten syllables, made up of five (‘penta-’) stronger beats and five weaker ones, with the stronger beat every second syllable: de-DUM (known as an ‘iambic’ rhythm).

Iambic pentameter is the type of verse closest in rhythm to spoken English, and its weak-strong beat pushes the speaker towards the more important syllables in a line. We hear it when we first see Macbeth, who says to Banquo:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen

This length of line of can be easily said with one intake of breath, and the regular heartbeat-like rhythm makes it easy to commit to memory.

The less-than-human characters are different. When Shakespeare breaks from that iambic rhythm, he’s telling us, aurally, that there’s something different about the characters, or that what they’re saying is especially important. The Witches speak in short lines of four DUM-de beats, a type of verse called trochaic tetrameter. We hear it in the opening lines of the play:

When shall we three meet again
In thunder lightning or in rain

This rhythm, so different from the rhythm of everyday speech, is a very subtle but effective way of making the characters seem even more other-worldly than they would if Shakespeare had written their speeches in prose or regular iambic pentameter. The repeated four-beat lines convey a hypnotic sound that drums into our ears. The effect is especially noticeable later in the play, as the Witches concoct their spells...

Comedy and tragedy
As well as being one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, Macbeth is also one of the darkest. It’s often played as a tragedy with little to no comedy; even the main ‘comic’ part, the Porter, can be played as a dark, tragic demon-figure. But as with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s an inherent balance of comedy and tragedy written in.

He knew, as the classic image of theatre (the ‘persona’ mask) implies, that comedy and tragedy work best next to each other. Balance is key: if you make an audience laugh, it’ll be easier to make them cry, and vice versa. So don’t be surprised if this production delivers unexpected laughs, or if it has a black comedy focus, instead of feeling like a ‘pure’ tragedy.

Themes… and variations
When the drunken Porter shows up to open the castle gate, he speaks of an ‘equivocator’, someone who intentionally misuses one word for another to deceive the listener. At the time of Macbeth’s first performances, equivocation was on the minds of Shakespeare and his audience. Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged in May 1606 for his part in Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. At his trial, he was famously discovered to have sworn evidence to be true that he knew in his mind was false – so trying to equivocate his way out of guilt. The idea of equivocation underpins the play. The prophecies the witches give to Macbeth seem to be straightforward but turn out to have a double meaning – lies masquerading as truths – and eventually doom him.

Shakespeare’s works are often discussed thematically, but such discussions don’t tell the whole story. It’s characters that make themes, not themes that make characters. Underneath the speeches are characters that think and feel like any living person. And that’s the starting point.

Shakespeare didn’t set out to write a play about a particular theme. Macbeth doesn’t reach for the crown to explore the theme of ambition. He simply is ambitious, and therefore we read that theme into the play. Similarly, Lady Macbeth is a strong woman, so it’s also a play about feminism. It can equally be read as a play about the current conflicts around the world, democracy or any number of other subjects. The marvellous thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that we can use them to reflect or refract virtually any modern political or sociological theme: freely channelling ideologies through his writing as if he wrote his plays to be sponges, sucking up whatever part of life we bring to them.

Ben Crystal is an actor and the author/co-author of several books on Shakespeare, including SpringboardShakespeare: Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare) and Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard (Icon Books). He Tweets at @bencrystal