Tragedy of Macbeth Brings Fits of Laughter

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: September 3, 1980
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

Actor Peter O’Toole, who rose to international stardom with his movie performance as Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, returned to the stage on this day for the first time in 17 years. He did so at the traditional home of Shakespearean drama, the Old Vic in London. And he chose the play that many actors swear is cursed – Macbeth.

Cursed or not, the play, which tells the story of a nobleman murdering the king of Scotland and seizing the throne for himself, made a killing in another way: it was a sell-out and provided a much-needed boost to the Old Vic’s coffers.

But the play and O'Toole's performance were attacked more savagely by the critics than any major classical production in memory and provoked bitter recriminations off stage.

The Times described the production as “gruesome,” while the Daily Mail thought it was “heroically ludicrous.” The Guardian spoke of “a roaring-boy performance by Peter O'Toole that is about as subtle as a battering-ram.”

The Observer observed that “the chances are he likes the play, but O'Toole's performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it.”

Wrapping up the weighty parcel of criticism, the Sunday Times told its readers: “Don’t trust those reviews. The spectacle is far worse than has hitherto been made out; a milestone in the history of coarse acting.”

O’Toole was well aware of the bad luck traditionally associated with a work that many actors would refer to only as “the Scottish play”. He insisted in rehearsals and interviews that the title of the play should not be mentioned.

According to Leonard Downie, writing in the Washington Post: “It turned out that O'Toole's fears were well-founded. During the first night he and Lady Macbeth walked into a wall on stage, a sword was bent in a clumsy, unintentionally comic sword fight, and the audience roared with laughter at what were supposed to be shocking scenes of Macbeth and Banquo's ghost dripping and spurting blood.”

In exchange for a nominal salary O’Toole had been given complete control of the production and early on he told Timothy West, Artistic Director of the Old Vic at the time, that he intended to use inflatable scenery (which turned out to be made from black dustbin bags).

West later recalled: “The time came for a demonstration and the curtain rose to reveal a dimly lit collection of black plastic phalluses swaying in the wind. Our ears were assailed by the noise of an air compressor, which was like a giant vacuum cleaner operating at full-tilt. The general effect was of a blustery day during a refuse collection strike.”

That idea was abandoned but West’s doubts and fears remained. When the production got under way he joined the chorus of criticism and said in an interview: "I'm afraid I have to disown it.”

He added: "Peter contractually has total artistic control, and though I tried to talk to him about how he was playing it, he would not listen. I had enormous reservations, but by the time I was able to see it in rehearsal it was too late to try to get him to see reason."

O’Toole responded by saying that the play was “none of West’s business.” Director Bryan Forbes went considerably further. In a letter to The Times he said he considered West's statement to be "a despicable act of artistic betrayal and a piece of commercial folly. Generals who speak from the safety of headquarters should not criticise those who are required to die in the front line."

Apparently, O’Toole was unmoved by the barrage of criticism. Asked to comment on the reviews, he said: "I've been insulted by experts. These are half-truths, serious aberration and f------ lies. The reviews will be fish-and-chips paper tomorrow. The public takes no notice."

It seems he was right about that. Macbeth had become the hottest ticket in town and as Leonard Downie reported: ”Lines of ticket-buyers stretched around the block and reservation phones rang constantly at the Old Vic and in Bristol, Leeds, Coventry and Liverpool, where the play will tour.

“Some said they wanted to see what all the fuss was about; others wanted to see O'Toole. Many who have now seen the play seemed to agree with the Daily Telegraph reviewer who, after tearing apart the production and O'Toole's performance, added, ‘Nevertheless, it is a play that will give audiences some rousing thrills and a knock-'em-down display of fireworks from a famous star’.”

Published: October 11, 2017

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