Macbeth: Supernatural or Superstitious?

Veteran theatre actor Peter Carroll chats about the blurred lines between superstition, the supernatural and reality ahead of State Theatre Company South Australia’s production of Macbeth.

It’s an unspoken rule in much of the theatrical world that one must never utter the name ‘Macbeth’ behind the scenes of a show, as to do so would curse the production. The superstition has no firm origin — some say it stems from the curses uttered in the play Macbeth, while others think the play itself spells doom for the theatre troupe that performs it — but that cautious tiptoeing around the word itself is real.

“It lurks there,” says Peter Carroll, who plays King Duncan in State Theatre Company South Australia’s upcoming production of Macbeth. “Of course, we say it so often in rehearsal that, yes, it’s fine to say it. But it does lurk there in the mind and DNA of all actors. It’s just a superstition, I suppose, and actors tend to be quite superstitious, probably because of the stresses involved in the job.”

While Carroll and his State Theatre colleagues have no real choice but to utter The Scottish Play’s namesake on a daily basis, superstition and the fragility of the mind are never far behind in this show. The Shakespearian tale is itself full of dark plots, curses, revenge and spiralling psychosis.

Modern interpretations of the play will often put the witches’ curses, ghostly apparitions and Macbeth’s hallucinations at the feet of psychology and superstitious fear, rather than supernatural events. Carroll enjoys this sort of interpretation, but also thinks a bit of ambiguity on whether what Macbeth sees is real or not goes a long way.

“It takes us in a more modern sense into a psychoanalytic, behavioural story,” he says. “We get such an insight into the mind… The witches’ presence through the play is quite strong, so what kind of reality it all is, is examined. Whether it’s hallucinatory, or the whole thing is real, is up for grabs.”

peter-carroll-macbeth-state-theatre-sompany-south-australia-adelaide-review-4
Peter Carroll (photo: Mike Smith)

This is the third time that Carroll has performed in a production of Macbeth after two seasons at the Sydney Theatre Company in the 80s and 90s. Yet, thanks to the play’s flexibility and State Theatre’s young ensemble, it all feels rather new.

“Each production has its own specific visual image,” he says. “Different elements of the play come forward while others are supressed. It’s always interesting.”

The show bears fresh relevance in our day and age as well. This production will bring Macbeth’s wartime setting into the present through a series of stylistic choices, and is expected to take some visual cues from a brooding cinematic world.

“The subtext is always what’s happening in the world today, and indeed we see a lot of naked ambition and violence and horrors in the world. It is unfortunately, surprisingly contemporary,” notes Carroll, lamenting the conflict and ever present avarice of modern times.

“Every day we have these images, appalling images of death and destruction and violence and brutality from the top. It seems very natural that these images would be where the design of the piece would it. That’s the launching pad.”

Carroll plays King Duncan, murdered in the second act by the ambitious, increasingly troubled Macbeth. He enjoys thumbing through the psychology of this character.

“He’s obsessed with the idea that you can’t find whether you can trust people or not by what they appear to be, but nevertheless he trusts Macbeth emphatically,” Carroll says. “Does that make him a fool or is it that Macbeth is a better actor?”

macbeth-state-theatre-sompany-south-australia-adelaide-review
State Theatre’s ensemble in rehearsal for Macbeth (photo: Shane Reid)

This is the second show from State Theatre’s new ensemble of young actors, with Carroll, Elena Carapetis and Chris Pitman along for the ride as guest artists. Carroll embraces the challenge of working with a young crew, taking part in morning “boot camp” warm up sessions, noting that “having youthful energy thrown at me every day is very, very good.”

“It’s great for me to come in and hook into the wonderful energy that’s coming out,” he says.
“They’re a beautiful company of actors. They’re very bright and very fit and very eager. They’ll do anything and they’re quite dangerous. It’s very exciting.”

Quizzed whether he thinks there is an implicit changing-of-the-guard statement in the choice to cast him, an older actor with a strong reputation, as a character who is knocked off by a younger generation, played by a fresh crop of ambitious actors, Carroll laughs and acknowledges that the world of theatre is changing.

“As you get older, of course, you do realise that the world has changed and the theatre has changed,” Carroll says. “I’m at the stage now where I have to listen to what the young are doing and what they want… It’s very good for an old dog to be made to try new tricks.”

Macbeth
Dunstan Playhouse
August 25 until September 16
statetheatrecompany.com.au

Header photo: Shane Reid

X