MUSING WHILE I WORK
by Clare O'Brien
Recently I saw the National Theatre's production of Macbeth, thanks to the broadcast technology of NTLive.
Set unusually in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of burned-out buildings and improvised weaponry, it depicted a nightmare landscape from which reason had receded. Communication had been replaced by rumour and hearsay, power was bestowed on those who shouted loudest and risked most, and violence had become the strongest and most effective argument.
Sound familiar? Although some critics hated the production, in this setting, Shakespeare's darkest play resonates on a particularly topical frequency. If we are to live in a world where random murder - by states as much as by terrorists - is normalised, the slaughter of Macduff's household becomes not a medieval relic, but modern life in microcosm. In a world dominated by fake news, Macbeth's betrayal by the witches - the "juggling fiends" who "palter with us in a double sense" - becomes a practical cautionary tale.
Our 21st century society is regressing into superstition and prejudice. We already know what it is to be tricked into a course of action - be it Brexit, or the election of a mad demogogue - through the equivocation of those whose only object is mischief. And we are finding out what it's like to be locked into a downward spiral from which, once it's been set in motion (article 50, anyone?) there seems to be no escape.
In the play's final act, its protagonist descend into horror, madness and death. Tragedy demands that at the end of the process, a sacrifice is made so that malign energy can be neutralised and the body politic healed. We've seen none of this so far in the world outside the theatre. The premature death of great ones has mainly affected the benign and inspirational - everyone from David Bowie to Tessa Jowell, with suicides amongst artists - Scott Hutchinson, Avicii, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington - climbing to frightening levels. But while the good guys go to their graves too soon, the ogres and tricksters continue to walk among us, reminders not of our own murderous sins but of our failure to confront encroaching, everyday evil.
The moving wood that presages the tyrant's fall in Macbeth is no supernatural event, but a liberating green army camouflaged by foliage. As we surrender to superstition and lies while our climate turns against us and our oceans are choked by plastic, it may take an equally powerful effort to banish the invading darkness and let a little light in once again.