Macbeth (1966): English Stage Company, Royal Court Theatre

PrMacbeth (

Location: Royal Court Theatre
Live Performance

PRINCIPAL CAST: Alec Guinness (Macbeth); Gordon Jackson (Banquo); John McKelvey (Duncan); Maurice Roeves (Macduff); Simone Signoret (Lady Macbeth).

This production opened on 20 October 1966. The programme lists a number of performers as generic supernumeraries, including two of the men playing the witches. It is impossible to tell if they performed all of these functions from the programme, but they are listed here as the actors are listed in the programme playing these roles.

"The curtain goes up on a blank, brilliantly lit box-stage with a wall to wall covering of sandpaper. Three shaggy African figures shuffle on and squat down together like village nannies for a friendly gossip and a few innocent giggles. So much for the blasted heath and the weird sisters. Of all Shakespeare's major plays, Macbeth has the least cause to be protected by tradition. Its tradition, in fact, is that it fails in the theatre. There is nothing to lose by approaching it experimentally. William Gaskill has certainly done so. Relying on a central performance by Sir Alec Guinness as a safety rope, he has swung the production out into space in the hope of finding a new route to the so-far unconquered summit. This is the most uncompromisingly Brechtian of Mr. Gaskill's Shakespearean productions. Hard white light beats down even on the night scenes, and Banquo's murderers fumble about in imagined darkness in full view of the audience. The style is resolutely anti-illusionist....And in the cauldron scene the witches simply produce dolls and glove puppets and speak the apparitions' lines themselves."  ~ "No illusions in Brechtian Macbeth", The Times, 21 October 1966

"William Gaskill's production of Macbeth at the Royal Court is commanding, intriguing, exciting; sometimes it is also irritating and disappointingly short of its high aims. But it is exactly the sort of fresh, experimental production that should be produced by the English Stage Company, and while one wishes that it was completely successful, one is very grateful for what has been achieved. It would seem that Macbeth is the last Shakespeare play to be set in blazing light; it is so dark and mysterious, so charged with witchcraft and strange manifestations of the deep inner workings of the two great leading characters. And at first it is difficult to take the exposure to which Mr. Gaskill subjects the play, in a plain box-like setting that is fiercly illuminated all the evening. Then one realises that the light is by no means blinding, as seemed to be the case, and the exposure by no means overdone, as seemed evident. Light and exposure work like delicate, highly sensitised probing instruments....The witches' scenes are among the least satisfactory, I thought the chattering of the male and female coloured players in these parts too immediately reminiscent of items in revues featuring Trinidad, to be acceptable, and in any case the players are poor." ~ R. B. Marriott, "Gaskill's Blazing Light on Macbeth at the Royal Court", The Stage and Television Today, 27 October 1966, p. 13

"Presumably, the director (William Gaskill) decided that the haunted tragedy, with its crowding images of darkness, could speak for itself just as well under the most glaring of Brechtian light. Having so decided, he then arranged for every possible distraction from the verse. Sir Alec, a superb Shakespearean who seeks to approach the part as a succession of new wonders, has to cope, first of all, with secret, black, and midnight hags who resemble a trinity of African witch-doctors, and who twitter and babble meaninglessly: plese do not tell us that the Jacobeans saw their Weird Sisters, 'fairies or nimphes,' just like this."  ~ "Nights of storm", Illustrated London News, 28 October 1966

"I must say I was greatly disappointed. One excellent aspect may be singled out: the verse speaking of Sir Alec Guinness himself....The play is put on with a bareness and poverty of plausible business which would strike an enthusiastic young English master producing the school play as rather unambitious. Again, I expect to hear that is intentional. But I doubt if it can be a good thing to get a laugh when dead little Macduff's son is carried out followed by the bench he had brought on. Nor could all the members of the audience 'take' the witches (kindly coloured folk) whose 'line of kings' were a half-dozen glove puppets brandished on high. It may be brave to seek the antithesis of the overatmospheric and romantic kind of Macbeth production once in vogue but it certainly makes things harder for everyone."  ~ Philip Hope-Wallace, "Macbeth at the Royal Court", Guardian, 21 October 1966

"The witches, two male and one female, are played by coloured actors, as witch-doctors, with high-pitched and incongruous results. Instead of vanishing into air they shamble furril off-stage like so many Highland sheep. The apparitions (glove-puppets for the show of kings) simply raised a laugh. And so did the habit of making actors remove the props. After the Macduff murders, one assassin removes the corpse, the other a table. A most disappointing evening, but, if you can ignore the perversity of the gimmicks, you should still see Guinness."  ~ Peter Lewis, "Macbeth (from the River Kwai) with a queen from Simenon", Daily Mail, 21 October 1966

"The play is acted on a bare, sand-coloured stage between three high, quite bare, sand-coloured walls. The costumes run the drab gamut from grey to heather mixture, cloaks of clay-yellow indicating royalty. The mood is austere. Thanes arrive for the banquet bringing their own stools and the table and their food; Lady Macduff's son walks in with a bench on which he sits and carves a whistle, and when he is dead the stage is cleared by having one murderer bear off his body and the other the bench. At this point the audience giggled. The stage is raked by glaring overhead lights that never dim to indicate change of location or fog or filthy air....If he [Gaskill] declines to turn the switch that dims the lighting this is presumably to accord with some suggestion of Brecht's that as few as possible naturalistic effects be interposed between our judgment and the partial illusion being created from hte stage. Presumably this is why the black and midnight hags are played by Africans who crouch twittering around the trap rather more like witch-doctors than witches. It makes us consider the scene unusually."  ~ Jeremy Kingston, Punch, 2 November 1966

"William Gaskill uses three good African actors for the witches in his Royal Court production of Macbeth. Doubtless one motive was to keep them in training for Soyinka's Nigerian play later in the year, but there's a more important reason: it's been suggested before that the sinister exoticism of the Scottish heathen might nowadays be best represented by African devil masks. The three faces are, in fact, bare but fringed with straight white hair; and they use inhuman spirit-voices, almost harmonising as if speaking a tonal language. When they summon their apparitions, these are not stage illusions but solid objects, fetishes full of magical power."  ~ undated and unattributed press cutting in the V&A Performance archive's file on the production

"An innovation in Sloane Square: three Negroes to play the witches in the Guinness-Signoret Macbeth opening at the Royal Court on October 20. 'It's not a gimmick,' says its director, William Gaskill. 'I saw them work in Wole Soyinka's Brother Jero at Hampstead and was most impressed. From left they are [photo was attached]: Femi Euba and Jumoke Debayo, from Nigeria, and Zakes Mokae, from South Africa. Later in the season Gaskill will stage two plays by Soyinka - The Lion and the Jewel and his latest, Kongi's Harvest."  ~ Kenneth Pearson, "Three Witches in Sloane Square", Sunday Times, 25 September 1966

"The English Stage Company has completed its plans for the 1966-67 season at the Royal Court Theatre. After Macbeth with Sir Alec Guinness and Simone Signoret, which opens on Oct. 20, will be the first of two plays by Wole Soyinka, presented in conjunction with the African company, I Jinle. The play The Lion and the Jewel, directed by Desmond O'Donovan, will open on Nov. 30. The second Soyinka play, Kongi's Harvest, will be staged next year, directed by the author and with actors, dancers and musicians from Nigeria."  ~ "African plays at Royal Court", Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1966

Pe People involved in this production