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16 January 2020

‘The Scottish Play’: Tracing the curse of Macbeth

The Scottish play has long been haunted by the spectre of its famous curse. So feared is the ‘curse of Macbeth’ that even uttering the dreaded word inside a theatre is thought to have terrible consequences.

The superstition surrounding Macbeth stretches back as far as its first performance – or so Max Beerbohm would have us believe. In a bid to spice up one of his reviews, the 19th-century critic invented a story in which the boy intended to play Lady Macbeth at the play’s opening was struck down by a fatal fever, setting off a chain of bad luck connected with the play.

Whether or not there is any basis for the curse dreamed up by Beerbohm, unfortunate incidents have dogged Macbeth’s performance history. The most disastrous of these occurred in New York in 1849, when a performance at the Astor Place Opera House descended into a riot. Supposedly sparked by a rivalry between actors Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, the riot involved a crowd of around 10,000 people in the streets surrounding the theatre, several of whom were killed by soldiers sent to quell the disorder.

Other misfortunes to befall thespians brave enough to take on Macbeth include a close shave for Laurence Olivier when he played the title role in 1937. While preparing for opening night at the Old Vic, the actor narrowly missed being crushed by a 25-pound stage weight that mysteriously fell down in the wings. The theatre proprietor was not so fortunate, dying of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.

Bad things, like the witches in Macbeth, are said to come in threes. That was certainly the case for a 1942 production starring John Gielgud, during which three of the actors died. But the production with possibly the highest turnover of cast and creative team was on Broadway starring Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer. Reports vary, but apparently the production went through three directors, five Macduffs, six stage managers, two set designers and two lighting designers – not to mention numerous injuries and outbreaks of illness.

More recently, Jonathan Slinger had to pull out of playing the title role for the RSC in 2011 after being knocked off his motorbike and breaking his arm, while just last summer a cast member was injured onstage in the Manchester International Festival production starring Kenneth Branagh. So maybe it’s best to keep calling it the Scottish play, just in case…

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