Middleton’s Macbeth: an observation – not a review – of Lincoln Center Theater’s production

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Lincoln Center Theater production of Macbeth, starring Ethan Hawke. I am not going to review it. That’s not my intention, and really, who am I to judge another person’s work? You may see it and love it, or you may see it and hate it. Not my point here. My goal is to look at it theatrically and historically and comment on it that way.

First, and most glaringly, is the title of this post. Why did I write “Middleton’s Macbeth”? Obviously, Macbeth was written by William Shakespeare. However, in the 17th century the play did not go untouched by other hands, and playwright Thomas Middleton made some additions to the play after Shakespeare’s death (I’ll get to that and why it impacted this particular performance). Back in Shakespeare’s time, and in many ways like today, plays were written by a group of people with a head writer. I believe, and this opinion is shared by people who matter, that Shakespeare was not the only person responsible for his plays. There was a group of people, most notably his acting troupe and the members of his company – the people responsible for the plays themselves. Shakespeare was the head writer, and responsible for most of the work, but it wasn’t, as a friend of mine put it, “a singular genius bent over a writing desk.” There was collaboration. And taking nothing away from Shakespeare himself, that’s just how things were done (this is not the discussion of “did Shakespeare really write the plays, or did he really exist” – that’s a different conversation). So having someone like Middleton add bits and pieces to one of Shakespeare’s plays is not unheard of. After all, Shakespeare did that to other people’s plays (see Sir Thomas Moore). But doing it after his death? That’s shady. And the parts that he added weren’t even that good (not Shakespearean standards at least). Middleton is responsible for the character Hecate (acts 3.5 and 4.1). She appears with the Weird Sisters – the witches of “double, double, toil and trouble” fame – and plays a goddess (which she is, according to mythology). She is given a much bigger role in this production of the play, and that’s where I have a problem.

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Hecate, and the witches, appear in nearly every scene, are present during pivotal moments in the play (Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me” speech in which she tries to find the strength to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan) and even swap places with some characters, filling those roles themselves to make it seem like the actions of the play are dictated by supernatural means. Throughout the performance, all of Macbeth’s decisions are seemingly made for him, and we are led to believe that he is destined to lose. The icing on the cake comes during the final battle with Macduff. The fight choreography makes it look like Macbeth will win, until the witches intervene and give Macduff the physical advantage to overcome and kill Macbeth.

So the question that I have: are we led to believe to that the entire play is a supernatural thriller starring the witches?

Yes, I believe we are. From the onset, there’s no indication that the Macbeths are in charge of their own fate – a pivotal, defining element in a tragedy. Macbeth can never really achieve the catharsis necessary for the audience to feel bad for him, because we know that he is simply a pawn in the witches’ game. The text – Shakespeare’s text – leaves it up to us to decide exactly how much of an influence these witches play in his life. Like a modern day psychic, they could simply be influencing him through the power of suggestion, leaving all final decisions to Macbeth and his wife. That creates the tragedy, since he did it to himself (and by extension, his wife, who we all know is a master manipulator). All of his fears and regrets, and the great speeches that accompany Macbeth’s journey of discovery, are just words, without any weight behind them. It essentially takes away any of the suspense or emotional involvement that the audience feels.

If we’re looking at a pure tragedy – which Macbeth is – then this particular production doesn’t make sense.

Did you see this production? Wanna talk about it? I love discussions – contact me.

Quick vocal warm ups you can do in your car

We’ve all been there. The phone rings and wakes us up out of a deep slumber. We answer it, say “hello”, and the person on the other side has no idea if it’s you, because your voice sounds like a combination of a dying frog and nails on a chalkboard. And if your job requires you to speak to people, or large groups of people, you need a voice that will work with you – not against you. If you’re teaching, speaking, acting (especially acting), or directing, a good vocal warm up is an absolute necessity. Think of vocal warm ups and exercises as going to the gym for your voice. Or sharpening the knife that is your voice. Or any other bad analogy.

There are literally hundreds of different warm ups, and a full warm up takes longer than the 10 minutes you will spend on the following. You should always aim for proper pronunciation, proper enunciation, and total clarity without straining or making it sound unnatural. Your voice is your tool – it should sound great without revealing your technique. A musician wouldn’t go on stage, play an awesome solo, and shout out what key it’s in or what scale he’s using or which exercises he uses to warm up. The audience shouldn’t watch your performance and  say “wow, what great technique” instead of “what an emotional performance”. But your technique will help get you to your emotional performance. If you’re pressed for time, this will work. And yes, these are great to do in your car, as long as you’re careful and don’t let it distract you from driving.

Just follow the order, do each one fully, and your voice should be in better shape than before you started.

  • Open your mouth wide open and stretch your mouth and face. Keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
  • Smile and open your mouth wide. This fully opens your throat. Start breathing normally, feeling the air go all the way down into your lungs. Be careful not to over exert. Your breathing should be natural. 
  • With an open throat start saying “ah”. Gently and softly at first, then a little louder and with more air. get louder in intervals. Pick out cars up ahead – first, one car ahead, then 2, then 3, and so on, and imagine your voice arcing to that car. As you progress, your voice should start to feel warmer, looser, and more flexible. Keep your eyes on the road.
  • Hum. With mouth closed, hum. you can start on one note, but then Explore your range – try different notes and patterns. Continue until the sound and the air is coming through without any sputters. The motor should be running smoothly. Try humming along to a familiar song on the radio. Even if you don’t have the greatest singing voice, or are slightly tone deaf, it will force you to move your voice around. 
  • Tongue Twisters. Pick a few different ones with different letters and sounds. Start slowly, enunciating each letter and sound, and work your way to a quicker speed. Eventually you’ll be saying them with no problem, have vocal clarity, and enunciate each sound without trying too hard.
    • Two excellent twisters are “red blood, blue blood” and “red leather, yellow leather”. Don’t cheat
    • Finally, one that will challenge you on two fronts: “don’t you, can’t you, want you, won’t you”. This will work your tongue and it will probably drive you nuts. The real challenge here is to try and not say “chew” between the first and second words (“don’t you”, not “dontchew”). It’s tricky, but worth the time to master.