Madness and mayhem will help The Mercury’s Macbeth make a killing
- Credit: Archant
Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular and dynamic of plays packed with betrayal, madness and murder. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to former EastEnders actor Nicholas Bailey about how The Bard remains as relevant as ever.
It seems extraordinary that plays written 400 years ago are not only still being performed but they remain the backbone of our theatrical world. Shakespeare didn’t just write plays - he wrote plays about real people.
His characters may have been fictional or fictional recreations of historical figures but he imbued them with all the heroic traits, flaws and human failings that make us all such fascinating, fallible individuals. The work of many of his contemporaries haven’t survived because they wrote about the concerns of Elizabethan England. Shakespeare wrote about humanity’s timeless traits which we seem damned to stumble over for an eternity.
He wrote about love, lust, greed, gluttony, ambition, deceit, treachery, betrayal, jealousy and heart-warming fools in some of the greatest dramas ever staged.
Because he was writing about eternal subjects like character flaws rather than about specific events his plays have been capable of infinite reinterpretation which allows them to be just as relevant today as they were when they were written.
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Because Shakespeare brought an actor’s sensibility to his works they are genuine crowd-pleasers with plenty of action and laughter to propel the plots forward.
It is this belief that Shakespeare wrote plays for the people, that he wrote plays to be performed to the masses rather than be studied as literary texts, that has fuelled EastEnders actor Nicholas Bailey’s lifelong love of Shakespeare. Although he is best known for playing Dr Anthony Trueman in the BBC’s long-running soap, his first love is Shakespeare and he is a member of the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Project and an honorary fellow at The University of Warwick, the home of the Multicultural Shakespeare project.
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He is currently playing Macduff in the Colchester Mercury’s new production of Macbeth. His previous Shakespeare outings include Julius Caesar at Manchester Royal Exchange, A Winter’s Tale and Hamlet at Manchester Library Theatre and King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen at Royal National Theatre and tour.
“Shakespeare always makes a connection with people irrespective of his relationships with other playwrights. His understanding of the human condition is his real genius. He understands what connects us and also what we struggle with. He is able to communicate the drama of our flaws and failings in his plays.”
He said that although the works of Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe are still performed they do not have the public recognition nor the sheer scale of performances that Shakespeare enjoys. “But, it has to be said that during their lifetime Kit Marlowe was more popular but Shakespeare had the common touch.
“Funnily enough I think that the reverence we give him these days does him a disservice. He was an entertainer. He was an actor. He understood storytelling. He knew how to make a connection with people and he was the very best at that and he developed a way through storytelling to allow people to see themselves in kings and queens and generals everyone in between and that was his genius.”
He said that other dramatists were great playwrights but their works didn’t have that common touch. They didn’t set out to reach out to the common man. “They haven’t had the deep, heartfelt effect that Shakespeare’s plays have. Even the language he uses, the new language that he created, all combine to make him extra special.”
He said that Shakespeare recognised the fact that it was our flaws, as a species, that defined us. “No matter that we see ourselves as civilised, that we try and improve ourselves or reboot our society, when, in actual fact, we are who we are. Shakespeare was able to take these stories and make them resonant for us and timeless which is why his popularity has grown and his contemporaries have diminished somewhat. They are not as loved as Shakespeare is and that is the difference.”
He said that Shakespeare also survives because it is capable of endless reinterpretation. In Daniel Buckroyd’s new production of Macbeth, the Colchester director is placing children at the very heart of the play. In addition to the Macbeths’ vaulting ambition, they are worried about their line of succession and concerned that their childless state makes them vulnerable to rivals with plenty of sons and heirs. This increasing paranoia results in the slaughter of the innocents as Macbeth tries to make his claim on the throne beyond dispute.
“The inspiration for a lot of this production is drawn from what is happening at the moment in eastern Europe. It’s amazingly current – particularly looking at what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia – and The Balkans in recent history as well. It’s about the rise of empires within a country and in this information age everything happens a lot faster and is much more brutal. The stakes are still just as high as in the medieval period and there were some parallels that Daniel wanted to draw. He wanted to bring out the contemporary relevance.”
He said that when all the external trappings, such as magic and witchcraft, then the story becomes about the fate of one boy – Banquo’s son Fleance.
“It’s clear in the play that the Macbeths have had a son in the past but he has died and the death of their child haunts them, particularly since Macbeth has seized the throne of Scotland because he has no-one to pass the throne onto. There will be no dynasty.
“My character, Macduff, is another father and his family come to a horrifying demise. The whole play is about boy children, about the loss of a child and the potential of a child as well. Although, there are a lot of parallels with the Ukraine and with Syria, if you go back to the text, it’s all there. That’s another great thing about Shakespeare, he’s always there to help you. Every time you read it, there’s something new to discover.”
He said that Macbeth is an object lesson in how difficult it is to quell our passions once they have been awakened. “There’s nothing you can do when those powerful emotions arise within you – whether it’s jealousy, envy, desire, ambition or greed. But, life is about decisions. It’s about what do you decide to do when you reach that crossroads. Do you take advantage of a situation or do you stay loyal, so you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.
“Nowhere does Shakespeare say that the other characters in the play don’t have the same thoughts that Macbeth does but he is the one that acts on it. It’s about the idea of a divine order of things. But you can look at the modern world and say that is no longer the case. The world has changed and the new kings are those who know computer code and control the internet and yet there is a view that perhaps the internet is just a modern version of the witches or Lady Macbeth whispering in his ear. The internet can be very seductive.”
Nicholas said that his love of Shakespeare started at a very young age. Whereas most school children fight shy of The Bard and his seemingly incomprehensible language, he found himself being seduced by the stories that came out of these books with strange titles like Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Richard III.
“All Shakespeare is about storytelling. His plays are meant to be laughed at, cried at. Good theatre is about great storytelling. It’s meant to be performed on stage. My first experience of Shakespeare was studying Macbeth for O-level and I instantly got it. Then in sixth form I played Macbeth in a full school production and that was a turning point for me as an actor because it enabled me to make that connection with an audience.
“I was lucky to go to schools in Birmingham that always had major productions. They always put a bit of money into them, so they looked good. I was always engaged. I was also an English scholar, I was really into English literature at school and the English teacher was also the drama teacher, it was all connected, but Macbeth was the first time I felt that connection with an audience.”
From there he spent a brief period working in an office before joining the National Youth Theatre and then going to drama school.
“It all happened quite quickly. I was 20 when I went to drama school and there weren’t many who were younger than me because they were looking for people with some life experience, a sense of the world around you, something that you can draw upon in your acting.”
He said that one of the great joys of his life is now working with the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Project trying to research the hidden history of Black and Asian Shakespearean performers in the years since Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930.
“It came out of a short piece I did in 2012 on Paul Robeson and the fact that he came over to England from America to play Othello. He was the first black performer to do so and wouldn’t have been allowed to that in his own country. I met an academic called Tony Howard and he was beginning to start an outreach project about cataloguing and investigating Black and Asian Shakespeare from 1930 to the present day. What we are trying to do is get all the surviving Black and Asian actors we can to be interviewed about their Shakespearean life and we want to get testimony, via our website, from audiences about performances they have seen involving Black or Asian actors.
“What we want to do is create a true history because it hasn’t been written or talked about with any authority until now.”
Macbeth is at the Colchester Mercury until October 18.