Rediscovering a Music-Filled Macbeth
Bringing together theater, music, and scholarship, the Folger delighted and intrigued modern audiences this fall with what is believed to be the first performance in centuries of William Davenant's adaptation of Macbeth from about 1664.
Both familiar and eerily different, this landmark production offers new ideas for scholarly research and modern performance. Within the Folger, different disciplines often come together on major, unique projects like this one, pioneering new ways for scholars, performers, and others to work together.
In about 1664, a new version of Macbeth by William Davenant appeared on the London stage, reinventing Shakespeare's Macbeth for late 17th-century playgoers. English theaters, which had closed in 1642 at the start of the English Civil War, had recently reopened, and they were eager to adapt to the latest performance trends. In this Macbeth, the witches sang and danced; some characters, like Lady Macbeth's doctor, were cut, and others had new lines or scenes. Other changes from Shakespeare's day are commonplace today, from the use of movable scenery to women playing the female characters.
Davenant's play was such a hit that it "was performed for 100 years," says theater historian Richard Schoch of Queens University at Belfast. "This was the version that was Macbeth on the stage." But then it vanished from the repertoire, replaced by another adaptation, and, eventually, by Shakespeare's original Macbeth. What would it be like to see and hear Davenant's Macbeth on stage, after so many centuries? In September 2018, the Folger Shakespeare Library was the perfect place to find out.
Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes, center) explains to the honorable Macduff (Chris Genebach) why he slew Duncan’s chambermen. Witches (Rachael Montgomery and Emily Noël) look on.
King Duncan (Louis Butelli, second from left) in performance with the wayward sisters (l to r: Emily Noël, Rachael Montgomery, Ethan Watermeier) in Folger Theatre’s Restoration-era production of Macbeth.
A SOLD-OUT SHOW
The Folger's production of Davenant's Macbeth was of so much interest that it sold out before the opening night. Directed by Robert Richmond, the production is set in the insane asylum of Bedlam in 1666, two weeks after the Great Fire of London, a setting that suggests the seeming contradictions of the play, including a mix of grim villainy and light-hearted music.
As for the adapted text, Folger audiences appear fascinated by the idea. "They know their Shakespeare very well," says Schoch, but they are "really open and receptive toward the changes." Musicologist Amanda Eubanks Winkler of Syracuse University notes, though, that there's "a little gasp, a frisson spreading through the audience" when Davenant's Macbeth says "Out, out, short candle," instead of "Out, out, brief candle."
Schoch is the Principal Investigator, and Winkler is the Co-Investigator, of the Performing Restoration Shakespeare project, a three-year grant funded by Britain's Arts and Research Humanities Council that provided major support for this production. Both have long associations with the Folger and were once long-term Folger fellows.
AN ARRAY OF FIRSTS
When she was a long-term fellow, Winkler worked on the musical settings for the witches' songs in this Macbeth; the edition which she subsequently published in 2004 is used in the show. Richmond also asked the music director, Robert Eisenstein of the Folger Consort, to assemble additional instrumental music, which the Consort performs as well. As the audience takes its seats before the first act, for example, the Consort, positioned above the main stage, plays pieces from a period manuscript by Matthew Locke, much of which was transcribed for this production. It's believed that only one or two pieces from this manuscript have ever been performed before in modern times.
As those musical achievements suggest, this rare production of Davenant's Macbeth "brings to light something that has been in the dark for so many years," says Winkler. In fact, Schoch says, "we are pretty sure that this is the North American premiere. It was performed in England hundreds of years ago, but we don't think there's ever been a professional production in North America."
STARTING WITH A WEEKEND WORKSHOP
The roots of the project trace back to a Folger Institute weekend workshop in 2014, also led by Schoch and Winkler, which brought together scholars, Folger Theatre actors, and musicians associated with the Folger Consort. Together, they used performance to investigate scenes from Davenant's Macbeth and a Restoration adaptation of Measure for Measure. The workshop later led to the Folger Consort production Measure + Dido, which was performed at NapaShakes and the Kennedy Center.
For Schoch and Winkler, the workshop inspired the Performing Restoration Shakespeare project, which builds on what was learned and takes it full scale. It includes events at three major institutions: a 2017 workshop at Shakespeare's Globe on a Restoration version of The Tempest, this Folger production of Macbeth in 2018, and a 2019 session in Stratford with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to explore and share the results of the work.
There was no question, however, as to where to stage Davenant's Macbeth. "This kind of project is incredibly well suited to a place like the Folger," says Winkler. The Folger has "a strong theater company, an in-house early music ensemble, the collection, and the scholarly resources, the brainpower around the institution," says Schoch. “It's hard to think where else in the world this could have taken place."
SCHOLARS AND PERFORMANCE
"This is a landmark production in lots of ways," says Schoch, "partly because it's finding a new way for scholars and artists to be true partners and to work together." During the project, as many as nine scholars were closely involved in the rehearsals. "This production is a unique and historic opportunity for all the elements of the Folger Shakespeare Library—the Folger Institute, the Folger Theatre, and the Folger Consort—to conjoin on a scale never before done," Richmond wrote in the theater program, "And I am honored to be at the helm."
Given the variety of points of view, "it surprised and delighted me that people who were so invested in the play from various perspectives came together, almost from the first moment we all met, with a lot of enthusiasm," says Janet Griffin, Director of Public Programs and Artistic Producer. "People were jazzed about being able to talk about a project from the various angles, and they all felt really excited about the adventure they were on."
The scholars were often asked for insights into Restoration theater and the era, though these ideas were meant as a creative springboard, not a limitation. Take the singing witches. How were witches typically portrayed in Restoration times, for example? And did London audiences of the time believe in witches? The answer to the latter question is, generally, no.
At the same time, the performers had much to share. "Each of the scholars had their own research questions that could only be answered through seeing this piece performed," says Winkler, including "what is your experience of performing Davenant versus Shakespeare's text?" The actors playing Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes), Lady Macbeth (Kate Eastwood Norris), and Lady Macduff (Karen Peakes) had a unique insight into that question, as each had played the same role in the Folger's 2008 Macbeth.
The 2018 production also included another member of the Peakes family, ten-year-old Owen Peakes, who plays Banquo's son, Fleance. "One of the main things for me has been the chance to work with my son on stage for the first time," says Ian Peakes, who had also acted with his own father. "It's just so neat," says Karen Peakes. "It's been a special experience for all of us."
EXPLORING REINVENTED CHARACTERS
For the actors, the "muscle memory" of Shakespeare's original lines was a challenge to overcome, as was their in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare's characters. Davenant's Macbeth and the other characters are somewhat different, Ian Peakes says. They are "more concrete, and don't have as big a range of emotion." Yet the Davenant Macbeth has its high points. "There's a scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act 2 that just doesn't exist in Shakespeare, and it's one of my favorite scenes to play. Half the time, the audience says, ’What the heck is this?’ and that's really fun. But it is also the chance to say to Lady Macbeth, 'This is your fault, had you not told me to do this,' which is completely part of the subtext, but he never got to say it" in Shakespeare's play.
Karen Peakes's role of Lady Macduff is greatly expanded, since Davenant builds up both Macduffs as a counterpoint to the Macbeths. "I love her," she says of Davenant's Lady Macduff. "In Shakespeare's version, the original, she's really just a vehicle to have violence acted upon her. But in this version, Davenant wanted a more fleshed-out couple to balance out the Macbeths, so suddenly I have this meaty character to work with." Davenant's Lady Macduff is a "strong woman," she says, "somebody that felt very modern to me."
LASTING RESULTS... AND THE UNEXPECTED, TOO
As it continues, Performing Restoration Shakespeare will lead to a video documentary (two segments are already online), an archival video record, a planned book by Schoch and Winkler, a wealth of journal articles, the summer session in Stratford, and much more. "Above and beyond that," says Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director of the Folger Institute, "this will likely have some really interesting and unanticipated afterlives—and that is not unusual for Folger Institute programs."
As she looks back on opening night, however, says Lynch, "You see it come to life, and it is just so pleasurable. We've been having conversations over the better part of a decade that are taking us to this moment, where we're in the theater, and the production values for this are just spectacular, and the Consort's up there playing. It is thrilling." This production is also so "large scale," she adds. "It has everything to do with Janet Griffin's courage, Robert Richmond's courage, and Ian and Kate's courage, to fully embrace this experiment"—an experiment, one might say, in what is Shakespeare, and what the Folger can do to find out.
Esther Ferington is an editor, writer, and content developer based in Alexandria, Virginia.