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The roaring boy Macbeth

Why Peter O’Toole’s 1980 performance at the Old Vic is remembered for all the wrong reasons

Earlier this dreary year, in the brief window between lockdowns when in-person, actual auctions were held more freely, I came across a small collection of battered swords at a general sale in Canterbury.

Modestly termed “stage swords in the medieval manner”, I guzzled them up at well below estimate, did some light research to confirm my inklings, and am now the proud owner of various blunted blades from one of the most memorable and culture-defining productions of Shakespeare in the latter half of the 20th century. The play was Macbeth. The theatre was the Old Vic. The lead was Peter O’Toole.

This car-crash production drilled shut the coffin on the form of 19th century Shakespearean performance

“Memorable and culture-defining” is, of course, a double-edged stage sword. On paper one would assume such a line up to have been a great success, and indeed, it sold out for the bulk of its run, raking in wonderful returns for the ailing Old Vic Company (which would, nonetheless, fold the following year). Critically, however, it had what was probably the worst reception of the modern age, and it is for this latter reputation that posterity remembers it.

“A milestone in the history of coarse acting. Mr O’Toole’s performance is deranged”, said The Sunday Times, “the voice is pure Bette Davis … the manner is Vincent Price hamming up a Hammer horror.” The Observer gleefully observed “O’Toole’s performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it” while The Guardian described a “roaring-boy performance by Peter O’Toole that is about as subtle as a battering-ram”.

This car-crash production drilled shut the coffin on the older, declamatory form of 19th century Shakespearean performance, and it hasn’t been exhumed since. A swift google will find plenty of articles which trumpet and recycle the same well-worn anecdotes of bathtubs filled with blood, inflatable bin-bag sets (never actually used in performance), and endless off-stage drama.

This being the fortieth anniversary year of what is generally agreed to be the worst Shakespearean production in living memory, I thought my acquisition was a good opportunity to look a little deeper and push past the canonical repertoire of horror stories in search of the Macbeth that might have been.

A number of accounts of the production have been written, from the melancholy wit of poor Tim West (who, as blameless Artistic Director, was scapegoated horribly by both press and public, not to mention by Peter O’Toole), through the thorough investigation of Robert Sellers’ Definitive Biography of O’Toole, right the way to the wild bombast of Brian “Banquo” Blessed’s stream of consciousness memoir, Absolute Pandemonium; the first element, when sieving my way through the annals, that gave me pause was the Wyrd Sisters. These were played as lusty temptresses in diaphanous, revealing outfits (one of whom O’Toole was having an affair with).

Quarmby describes an unimaginably horrible run, full of shame and embarrassment and out-of-control ego

Pretty much every review pointed out how ridiculous the idea of “sexy” witches was, and all the various accounts follow suit in dismissing this artistic choice alongside the more obviously awful aspects of the production. Interpreting the witches as enticing, sexually charged femme fatales rather than wizened hags is certainly not inherently ludicrous, however, and has (in fact) become far more common than pointy hats and hooked noses in the intervening years. The witches here physicalised and sexualised their temptation of Macbeth, at one point stripping him onstage. Whilst this may not have worked in practice, it’s not a ridiculous idea.

The most analytical of the accounts available comes from the ensemble actor Kevin Quarmby, written for the academic journal Shakespeare. In it, he draws our attention to another interesting choice which hints at concept behind the chaos, when he explains that:

Seyton, the servant to Macbeth … was to become a pivotal creature of court, covertly following and observing his master and mistress’s behaviour throughout the play. … Seyton (emphatically pronounced ‘Satan’) was indeed satanic in his portrayal of sly sycophancy; ever watchful, he personified the arch intelligencer eager to spy on the Macbeths for personal gain.

Whilst lusty witches are no longer so rare a reading of the play, this direction for Seyton remains distinctive, and hints at the remains of some kind of cohesive reading of the play that didn’t survive rehearsals.

I first worked with Kevin, ironically enough, in a bizarre and endearing (if not traditionally “successful”) little film called Macbeth’s Disciple, and when I wasn’t standing topless in a ditch, painted blue, waiting to murder Banquo, he and I were merrily tapping our way through fight choreography together. These days he’s an erudite Shakespearean professor at the College of St. Scholastica, but forty years ago he was one of the hot young aspirants in the company, fresh from the phenomenally successful Jonathan Pryce Hamlet at the Royal Court. I spent an hour or two catching up with him over Zoom, during which he emphatically assured me that yes, it really was all that bad.

Was O’Toole’s myopic focus on the lead character’s journey his attempt to create a ‘cinematic’ Macbeth?

Quarmby describes an unimaginably horrible run, full of shame and embarrassment and out-of-control ego, with no real direction and no real director. O’Toole had managed to get complete artistic control written into his contract, and when Jack Gold (the original director) left due to these restrictions Brian Forbes replaced him – a filmmaker with little stage experience, who acted as an enabler and indulger of O’Toole rather than any kind of artistic or controlling presence. Actors on stage were told simply to stare, still and silent, at O’Toole as he performed so as not to draw any focus or distract: “Likewise, the single limelight operator was instructed to follow O’Toole, and only O’Toole, whenever he was on-stage. Actors used to exploring their roles and discovering an inner reality with which to communicate emotion to the audience found themselves isolated in an artistic process that denied their skills.”

Starved of guidance, horrified at how old-fashioned O’Toole was, the actors followed their own naturalistic processes and developed characters almost in isolation, resulting in disjointed, awkwardly incompatible performances.

And what of Macbeth himself? Quarmby agrees with the critics:

His delivery was tortured and idiosyncratic. Each foot of the iambic pentameter was overstressed, each line ending with a pause which accentuated the metrical cadence without any deference to sense or through-line; the effect was like listening to a very mature public schoolboy being forced to recite Shakespeare in class … I can still hear him doing every line, because I was on stage with him practically all the time, and the delivery was absolutely the same from the moment of rehearsals right to the very last night.

Here, however, things become less clear-cut. Christopher Fulford, who played Donalbain, remembers how “Peter did his soliloquies … and did them I thought brilliantly. There was a sense of grandeur to his performance, even in rehearsal … When I had my moments on stage with him, I thought he was fantastic, absolutely fantastic … he had something going on in his head that was so in the moment you almost reeled back from the force of it.”

Jamie Newell, who was a supernumerary during the Bristol leg of the tour, found the production shabby but O’Toole exceptional: “That ‘Tomorrow’ speech was extraordinary, the clarity of thought and truth were mesmerising and there were flashes of that throughout for the man himself.”

In publicity materials throughout the rehearsal period, O’Toole spoke of the production as “an old fashioned, rip-roaring, big-screen cinematic vision of Macbeth on stage.”

Bearing in mind that O’Toole was, by this point, very much a film actor, could it be that his myopic focus on the lead character’s journey was his attempt to create this filmic, “cinematic” Macbeth? That the constant spotlighting was an experiment in replicating a cinematic close up, the stillness and silence of supporting actors aimed at keeping them “out of shot” whilst still on stage? It’s worth noting that O’Toole brought in a film director, a film designer, a film stunt choreographer. His biographer dismisses this as simply nepotistic “jobs for the boys”, but was something more at work?

O’Toole sought to combine legendary Shakespearean theatre with the populist and accessible world of cinema

Throughout the production commentators compared his approach constantly to that of Sir Donald Wolfit, last of the great, larger-than-life Shakespearean actor-managers working in the 19th century style, whose self-funded touring productions (starring himself) had kept theatre alive during the Second World War and entertained all corners of the nation when they needed it most. Irving Wardle in the The Times said O’Toole’s performance was Wolfit on a bad night, and Kevin Quarmby describes it as “the closing volleys of the barnstorming actor-manager type. The death of the Wolfits. One actually felt that you were at the funeral of that style of performance and acting.”

This is a refrain we hear a lot, but it’s important to remember that only the bad actor-managers were bad. Wolfit lived and breathed Shakespeare and the stage and devoted a lifetime to mastering a particular approach to performance and a particular style of theatre and doing so wonderfully successfully to never-ending popular applause and critical approval; his Hamlet and Lear were both held by many to be definitive. O’Toole, for all his unassailable genius and star power, was simply pretending at this. He had never earned his stripes, in this regard, and so it isn’t any wonder that he failed.

In the only footage of the production I can find, from an American newsreel, O’Toole describes his deep love of Shakespeare and of Macbeth, and explains that his connection to the Old Vic goes back “practically since ‘54 and emotionally since about 1937 – it’s been a dream of mine to be involved in the kind of demeanour, the stance the Vic takes in theatre.”

I believe that O’Toole is referencing the popular, populist, familiar and accessible style of Wolfitian theatre that he remembered from his childhood, as opposed to the intellectualised, experimental and concept-driven approach which had gained popularity over the 1970s, which he found pretentious and elitist.

I think O’Toole sought to combine the legendary Shakespearean theatre of his childhood (and earlier) with the equally populist and accessible world of cinema, which he had so mastered, and to recreate a kind of Shakespeare that was of and for “The People”, and which didn’t require university degrees or black turtlenecks to enjoy. Much like Orson Welles’s film adaptation, I think O’Toole was attempting to tighten the focus of the play on the character and downfall of Macbeth alone, as he described him at the time, as “a flawed villain, a villain whose nobility keeps on breaking through.” Unfortunately, O’Toole very much failed to achieve this. Kevin Quarmby said:

I’m trying so hard to think of some good things about this production … I still have the visceral memory of embarrassment that exists. Pushing that aside one could argue, I agree, that elements of his vision were sufficiently Avant Garde that given to, say, Rupert Goold or someone like that – look at the Patrick Stewart Macbeth, no less Avant Garde an approach – given to a director who themselves had some artistic merit, had experience of the theatre … if a strong director had been involved some elements could have worked … [but instead we have] O’Toole investing some really interesting ideas, but then coming into conflict with his own sense of Wolfitism, whereby his ideas weren’t worthy of development or of honing by a director, but rather were imposed on the production, artificially.

Perhaps one day these swords will be used again, in another Macbeth, one that fulfils that neo-Wolfit concept and redeems O’Toole’s vision. Perhaps they won’t. The general issue seems not to have been that O’Toole had no concept, or that O’Toole’s concept was bad, but simply that O’Toole was not qualified or capable of expressing it as de facto director. Peter O’Toole was not Donald Wolfit and was not a Shakespearean actor-manager; it should really come as no surprise that pretending to be one for the first time at such a high-stakes level wasn’t a success, especially having not set foot on a stage in seventeen years.

O’Toole was a star actor, and perhaps if he’d used an empowered, experienced stage director the production would be remembered today equally strongly but for different reasons. Perhaps. In truth, however, I doubt it. No matter how good it may have been, it likely would not have made as intense an impact, or have dented the public consciousness quite so deeply, as did the chaotic, barnstorming stage-wreck that it became. There is a curious honour in that.

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