Is James McAvoy too young to play Macbeth?
Shakespeare's blood-soaked king has traditionally been portrayed by far older actors, says Michael Coveney
Wednesday 06 February 2013
When baby-faced 33-year-old James McAvoy, star of the X-Men movies, Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, takes to the specially reconfigured stage of the Trafalgar Studios in London, this Saturday, he will be the youngest Macbeth in living memory.
Is there any justification for this? By the end of the play, his way of life has fallen into "the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends," he says, "I must not look to have."
But there is no evidence to insist on his age in the play and the action covers an extended passage of time which could be 10 or even 20 years.And Macbeth could anyway be merely anticipating his old age, not describing its reality. Moreover, the play is easily susceptible to a flexible notion of middle-age, and often inhabited by actors in their late 30s (Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Pryce); the late Jon Finch, though, was just 28 when he starred in Roman Polanski's blood-boltered, somewhat hysterical, 1971 movie. On the other hand, Patrick Stewart was a fit-looking 67-year-old, certainly the oldest Macbeth since the Victorian era, when playing a great tragic role was an indication of status rather than suitability.
The key factor is the credibility of the Macbeths as a married couple in a desperate, then disintegrating, relationship. In Stewart's case, in Rupert Goold's 2007 production for the Chichester Festival Theatre, his Lady M was the vivacious Kate Fleetwood, an exotic young trophy wife who urged on her husband in their castle abattoir.
The old question in Shakespearean scholarship was, "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" She talks of giving suck and knowing "how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me," yet Macduff, whose family is wiped out by the monster, states simply in response to hearing this terrible news, "He has no children."
Macbeth's anguish lies in the fact that all these murders will have been committed to no avail, no son of his succeeding. And it is that much scarier when the couple are younger, as are McAvoy and his partner in crime, Claire Foy.
In 1995 Mark Rylance was a 35-year-old shaven-haired Macbeth, partnered by a young Jane Horrocks; this was an odd, cultist, reading of the play in which Horrocks peed (for real) every night in the sleep-walking scene, until the stage-management would clean up after her no longer.
That version, at Greenwich Theatre, had the effect of making this callous, taboo-breaking couple even more strange and isolated, and explained their separate nose-dives into despair all the more piquantly precisely because they were young.
Laurence Olivier was 45 at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955, Antony Sher was 50 at the RSC in 1999, and Peter O'Toole, in a disastrous 1980 Old Vic revival, a chaotically rumbustious 48.
McAvoy is Scottish, which often helps, as indeed is Tom McGovern, who also opens in the role this week for the Guildford Shakespeare Company. But McGovern is 50 years old. Kenneth Branagh will be 53 when he plays Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival in July.
McAvoy, who has not been on stage for three years, may have the hardest task of all in matching Macbeth the psychotic warrior with a portrait of a less than ideal young husband in a carnal marriage dogged by sad secrets.
'Macbeth', Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0844 871 7632) 9 February to 27 April; 'Macbeth', Holy Trinity Church, Guildford (01483 304384) to 23 February
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Technology company Alibaba posts job advert asking for 'stunning' women with qualities of adult film actress Sora Aoi
- 2 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 3 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 4 Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Jorge Luis Borges fan brings his infinite library to life online
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
In defence of liberal democracy
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils