Michael Attenborough talks Macbeth

Macbeth director Michael Attenborough with actor Jason Klarwein, who plays the title role. Photo: Supplied
Macbeth director Michael Attenborough with actor Jason Klarwein, who plays the title role. Photo: Supplied

Michael Attenborough doesn't pay much heed to the old theatrical tradition of never saying the word “Macbeth” unless you're actually performing the play.

The lauded theatre director – and son of screen luminary Richard Attenborough – has been involved with numerous versions of Shakespeare's infamous “Scottish play”, the latest of which is the Queensland Theatre Company's highly-anticipated production opening on March 22.

“I don't do it because I'm superstitious, but because other people around me might be,” he said.

“There's no point in frightening them.”

But why the fear around Macbeth, when no other Shakespearean tragedy attracts such superstitions?

“There's no other play that sticks its fingers inside evil in the way that this play does,” Attenborough said.

“I don't think there exists in drama or any literature a piece that exposes the fragile mind of a killer in the way that this does... it goes in so dark and so deep and so horrifying and that's why people are frightened of it.”

Attenborough's involvement in the production began when he met Brisbane actor and Macbeth star Jason Klarwein while teaching a Shakespearean intensive in Nowra more than two years ago.

At the end of 2012, Attenborough gave up his role as artistic director of London's acclaimed Almeida Theatre, and got back in touch with Klarwein about returning to Australia to mount an actual production.

Securing funding through the state government's Super Stars Fund, QTC artistic director Wesley Enoch flew to London to meet Attenborough, and the pair decided on Macbeth.

Attenborough's Scotland is a torched, wasted landscape, a gnarled world torn by civil war where there are no straight lines and no straight answers.

“It's got to be an environment in which fear can be a factor... and it needs something quite primitive,” he said of the production's topsy-turvy design.

“The world does not make you feel secure... it's a world in which witches can appear.”

But as a former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Attenborough's focus is on the correct interpretation and delivery of the Bard's words.

“His genius didn't just consist of beautiful language, his genius consisted of the fact that he wrote in character,” he said.

“So all thousands of characters that he invented in his 37 plays are all different, and they don't cheat, they don't get given words they wouldn't know.”

Attenborough said while Shakespeare and his contemporaries had invented blank verse and iambic pentameter ironically to sound more “modern” to the theatre-going audiences of the late 1500s, actors now had to work hard to understand the form.

“You can't get into a Jaguar and drive it as if it was a Mini – you have to understand how that vehicle runs, how to negotiate it on the road,” he said.

“And like all good acting, it has to be effortless...if we can see you working, you haven't worked hard enough.”

It's impossible not to touch on Attenborough's famous family: legendary actor/director father Richard, actress mother Sheila Sim (the pair, both in their 90s, are now in full-time care) and naturalist uncle David.

Attenborough said their love of the arts was now in its third generation, with his two sons working as an actor and director in Britain.

“Their ability to communicate is pretty awesome... they just happened to choose different fields,” he said of the elder Attenboroughs.

“It is an extraordinary legacy.”

This story Michael Attenborough talks Macbeth first appeared on Brisbane Times.