Macbeth in the Time of Quarantine

Shakespeare On-Demand

It has been over two weeks since enhanced community quarantine was enforced here in Manila to combat the spread and increasing number of COVID-19 cases. There are 2,311 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Philippines as of this writing, with 96 deaths and just 50 recovered patients. The entire globe has become a massive battlefield against an invisible enemy that demanded everyone to shut their doors. Having restrictions on outdoor activities did not sound bad for me at first, but when I already have exhausted all the activities on my list to keep the boredom at bay, I started to realise the importance of communal experiences.

I was planning to watch Aida as part of this year’s season of Met Opera Live in HD before commercial establishments were shut down. The program is launched every year to give people across the globe a chance to witness stunning productions that were recorded in New York. I sadly missed the show (and loads of other stuff) which was originally scheduled to be screened last 10 March. Now that everyone is urged to stay at home, large theatre production houses from different parts of the world are making their performances available online to help ease even just a little of the distress and anxiety caused by the cruel pandemic. One of the performing arts companies offering the gift of theatre on the internet is Shakespeare’s Globe.


I was amazed by the broad selection of Shakespeare plays people can watch on-demand via the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Apart from my deep-seated obsession with the works of The Bard, my anglophile heart also longs to see a Shakespearean play performed in London! These fantasies were all satisfied by just a couple of clicks, thanks to the highly efficient Globe Player app. I rented a performance of Macbeth, one of the first Shakespearean plays I managed to finish reading, for just £5.99 (Php376). I know the price does not sound cheap if we are to compare it with the monthly subscription fee of Netflix, which offers a multitude of movies and TV series. But one must remember that live theatrical materials are often subject to stringent copyright restrictions. It is thus a rare event that producers would allow people access to some of their critically-acclaimed productions online.

Macbeth: The 2013 Shakespeare’s Globe production

The 2013 staging of ‘The Scottish Play‘, directed by Eve Best, opens with a thundering sound of bagpipes and an ensemble of actors carrying various manners of percussion instruments. Although the costumes were inspired by the Renaissance period, the production design has a dark and minimal aesthetic, fully indicative of the tragic end that awaits. The black smudge of dirt peppered all over the backdrop and pillars of the stage appears to be dried splatter of blood, as if something brutal has already happened even before the performance began. This concept alludes the play’s prophetic theme which examines the predestination of events in one’s life. Macbeth generally casts the question of whether or not we can be trusted to know the details of our fate, considering we all have a propensity to abuse the things we know. 


Jess Murphy, Moyo Akandé, and Cat Simmons as The Three Witches

In Macbeth, we see how man is constantly perturbed by the urge to always have control over his affairs. The obsession for power and the energy required to maintain it fuelled Macbeth’s paranoia and delusion of grandeur. But more than the images of ambition and deceit, what particularly interests me is Shakespeare’s grand analysis of conscience. The first thing man does during a moral crisis when guilt begins to penetrate his heart, is free his hands from the indelible marks of selfishness: ‘Out, damned spot! out I say!’. The performance of Samantha Spiro as Lady Macbeth is teeming with tension and an ample degree of helplessness, so that audience can still spare a small amount of pity for the woman who triggered his husband’s fall. During the scene where Lady Macbeth is gradually consumed by madness, I saw in Spiro a character who wants to get away from his present ordeal but at the same time admits how worthy she is of moral trauma. Spiro’s performance is an excellent confession of guilt that captures the sorrows of a greedy soul.

Samantha Spiro as Lady Macbeth

Joseph Millson’s Macbeth has a consistent level of grit throughout the play. He made the words of Shakespeare the centre of his interpretation, without minding about the way he looks. Unlike many actors who invest so much in the external picture, Millson treated facial expression only as a secondary element of his performance. He focused on the scansion and thought of every word he utters, which for me is the single best way to perform Shakespeare. Macbeth is a puppet of external events despite his Herculean confidence and valour. As an indication of his theatrical calibre, Millson was able to show the internal efforts of Macbeth to convince himself that he is in charge of the things happening around him and not otherwise. This portrayal helps the build-up of a tragic narrative because we all discover in the end that Macbeth was a victim manipulated by fate.

Joseph Millson as Macbeth and Samantha Spiro as Lady Macbeth
Gawn Grainger as Duncan and Harry Hepple as Lennox

The Tragedy of Macbeth ends with a bloody severed head, a sight one may interpret as the separation of the delusional thoughts from the heart-controlled body. Whether his death is metaphorical freedom or simply a culmination of all his moral errors, Macbeth will continue to haunt the theatres of our minds, reminding us that power can be tricky and it should never be given to someone whose agenda is solely inspired by self-interest.

DISCLAIMER: All production photos featured in this article were screen-captured using my Globe Player account. I have paid a fee to have access to the performance. All rights belong to The Shakespeare Globe Trust. 


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