Keep Calm And Never Say M*cbeth

In my long career in theatre, I’ve been involved in all but two plays in the Shakespeare canon, the missing pair being King John and Henry VIII, but the play that I’ve worked on more productions of than any other is the one that you’re not supposed to mention. I’m going to mention it now, so if you’re in a theatre and are remotely superstitious, I suggest you stop reading.

Everyone else okay? Good, then I’ll carry on.

Yes, it’s Macbeth, or The Scottish Play or, as Peter O’Toole insisted on calling it, Harry Lauder. (Lauder was a hugely popular Scottish vaudeville entertainer in the UK and the USA back in the early 20th century, by the way.) Saying the name, or quoting from the play when you’re not actively involved in a production, is still considered massively bad form by some, otherwise quite sensible, people. One has to be very careful around other theatricals when working on a production of Macbeth, as one never knows who the superstitious ones might be, and being sent out of the room, told to turn round three times, spit, and knock to regain admission, or whatever other bizarre rituals need to be enacted to appease the spirits, can get really tedious.

There are many theories as to why Macbeth should have such a bad reputation: Some are based on rather quaint theories about Shakespeare pinching bits of the witches’ dialogue from actual witches, others on the fact that supposedly terrible things have happened to actors in productions of the play. (Actually, having worked on the O’Toole Macbeth at The Old Vic in 1980, I can relate to this theory and, on the basis of another production some years ago, that terrible actors have also happened to the play.) My preferred theory is that, because Macbeth is a crowd-pleaser and a surefire hit, when a theatre has a play that is failing and audiences are falling off, the beleaguered theatre manager replaces it with Macbeth as soon as possible, to get the audience back in, thus gaining the play notoriety as an indicator that all was not well.

At the last count, I’ve been involved in 14 productions of Macbeth, from the one for which I was part of the lighting team at my high school, where we had a dagger on the end of a piece of fishing line, dangled from the flies for the “Is this a dagger I see before me...” bit, to productions at The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe, and all points in between. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and not just for the opportunities that it affords a sound designer, but because it contains, for me, some of the most spectacular speeches in the canon.

I used to be a part-time member of a small team from The RSC’s education department and helped out on various projects, but the one that I was most involved in was a workshop series about staging Shakespeare, called Choices. We presented these in a couple of small theatres in Manhattan, (CSC on E 13th initially and The Open Eye Theatre on W 89th for the later sessions) to kids from the New York public school system in a two-hour session, with the students making decisions about period, costume, lighting, sound, and props. The two plays on which we concentrated, as they tended to be regular inclusions in the school syllabus, were Romeo And Juliet and Macbeth. Inevitably, we’d do some basic staging with a couple of the kids reading sections of the text, and these would generally go down pretty well with the rest of the audience. The workshops weren’t exactly relaxing, as trying to entertain and involve a hundred or so teenagers who really didn’t want to be there and who couldn’t have cared less about Shakespeare wasn’t always easy, and the two main presenters would often finish the twice daily workshops totally exhausted. Largely, my job was to have a wide choice of effects and music on hand from which I could produce a simple soundtrack and with the help of Masque Sound’s rental department, enough kit to enable me to play it all, so I could sometimes sit back and watch what went on. One occasion still sticks in my mind. A young girl, part of a group from a fairly deprived part of the city, was asked to read Lady Macbeth’s speech from Act 1 Scene 5, which begins with the lines:

“The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements…”

If you don’t know it, look it up; it’s a pretty powerful piece of writing.

She read it slowly and haltingly, with no obvious understanding of what she was saying, but got through it. Then one of the workshop leaders took her off to a room backstage, went through the meaning of the piece with her, and gave her a few basic ideas as to how to present the speech. A while later, she came back and did it again. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as she powered her way through the text with real passion in the pin-drop silence, and when she’d finished, there was an immediate and spontaneous ovation from her peers. I’ve heard professional actors deliver that speech with less conviction than that young lady, and it still remains one of the highlights of those workshops for me.

That was one of the good times that I’ve experienced with Macbeth; there have been others, not so good, and I shall recount a few instances for your edification. There was the outdoor production on the site of an old castle where the composer was a friend of the director but, in real life, was an executive with a major oil company. He’d never worked on a professional production before, and a major part of our job was to render his long, rambling music cues into something that actually fit with the action. He’d prepared a half-hour long preamble, which he insisted that we start exactly 30 minutes before curtain-up and that the play then had to start precisely at the end of the music. We pointed out that the show rarely went up on time, due to the nature of the venue, the vagaries of the weather, and various other imponderables, and that the show would start when everyone was seated and the actors were ready, not at the whim of the composer. We got around that one by looping a section of the music towards the end of the 30 minutes and cross-fading to the 30 seconds or so that contained the climactic piece of music once we had house clearance, but he was never really happy.

Then there was the composer for a period production who decided that all the major soliloquies needed underscoring and chose the most raucous medieval instruments with which to do it, lamenting, when the cues were mostly cut, that it was a pity that the actors weren’t amplified so that the music could be heard.

There was one where a fresh-out-of drama-college actor (who insisted on doing his hour-long warm-up in total silence, causing the sound and lighting crew to come in an hour earlier to do their system checks) declared to the seasoned comedy actor playing the Porter that he was “not funny enough” and needed to “develop a funny walk,” which he then proceeded to demonstrate. The fact that his own performance was one of the worst I’ve ever seen and sometimes even occasioned laughter never seemed to trouble him. “Oh horror, horror, horror!” was what I thought whenever he came on stage.

That same actor steadfastly refused to leave the stage during tech because there wasn’t a specific drum cue for him to react to. I pointed out that there was, by then, almost continuous drumming mixed into the offstage battle sounds and that the composer hadn’t actually furnished a specific cue for him, imagining, no doubt, that he’d just say his lines and get off.

Then there was the production where, to get an authentic “cry of women” in Act 5 Scene 5, the director assembled a recording system, three or four of the female members of the company, and me in a room, locked the door, turned all the lights off, and asked them to imagine the worst thing that could happen to them or their families, pets, etc. and that I should record the resultant sobbing. It worked, but it was a really uncomfortable 20 minutes.

There was also the youth theatre production in which our Wyrd Sisters wore wireless mics (for effect, rather than audibility) in a multi-hall venue where a wedding was taking place, also using wireless microphones, although theirs were, unlike ours, on unlicensed frequencies and rather wide-band in their transmission.

This is how the show opened on a Saturday matinee.

1st Witch            When shall we three meet again

  In thunder, lightning or in rain?

2nd Witch          When the hurly-burly’s done,

  When the battle’s lost and won.

3rd Witch           Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the bride and groom!

And finally, there was the aforementioned Peter O’Toole Macbeth at The Old Vic. Most of what you can still read about that production is more or less true, but none of the reports have come close to describing what really happened on that fateful production. One day, I’ll write the definitive account, but there’s not enough space to do that here.

I have to stop now, as the computer’s just caught fire, my wife has fallen down the stairs, and the car’s been stolen. Bad luck to mention Macbeth? Load of superstitious nonsense…

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for more than 40 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound. His sound effects libraries are available online at