Macbeth. The mere mention of the name sends shivers of fear down the spines of even the bravest and least superstitious of actors. Since the very first Macbeth died backstage in 1606, to be replaced by Shakespeare himself, bad luck and gross misfortune have been associated with ‘The Scottish Play’. But fear of unearthly influences will not stop Julian Glover from starring as Duncan and the Porter in the new production, now playing at the Albery, as Matthew Amer found out…
“We’re not going to have any bad actions in our production.” An interesting assertion to make considering the plot of Macbeth contains one bad action after another. Maybe this is not what Glover means. He may, after all, be referring to the eerie superstitions surrounding this most supernatural of plays. But he’s far too experienced and grounded an actor to let old wives tales bother him, isn’t he? “I think all actors are superstitious because a very fine thing can put you off your course. When you’re going down to the stage, if you happen, on the first performance, to knock into a corner with your elbow, you’ve just got to do it every time. It’s completely automatic. Let’s keep to the routine and maybe we’ll get away with it. If we disturb the routine… Oh my God!” Maybe just a little superstitious then.
To take one of Shakespeare’s plays for a guaranteed period of three months in the West End of London is a very extraordinary and exciting thing to do."
Glover’s career has been anything but routine having spanned 5 decades of stage, television and film work. He has been around the block and back again, but this particular project seems to have aroused an unquenchable, almost child-like enthusiasm in him. “For a commercial management company to take one of Shakespeare’s plays for a guaranteed period of three months in the West End of London, I think is a very extraordinary and exciting thing to do. I don’t have an enormous commitment in the play as I’m finished after three quarters of an hour, but when I am on there it is tremendously exciting.”
This current production of Macbeth – I think it can be typed without incurring the wrath of the theatrical gods – sees the setting shifted from 14th century Scotland to a timeless land of no fixed address, a type of every-land. This may upset the purists who are infuriated by costume and setting changes, but this is not a view entirely shared by Glover. “None of Shakespeare’s plays are actually about the period in which they are set. Anthony and Cleopatra is not about ancient Egypt, it’s about all sorts of other things. It happens to be set in Egypt but all the references are contemporary Elizabethan. I talk about people being gentlemen in Macbeth. That’s hardly associated with 14th century Scottish warlords. As long as you do it with conviction and don’t falter on anything at all, then it will work. This really does work terribly, terribly well.” And what of those people who may criticise the production for giving the verse a more natural rhythm? “It’s absolutely what Shakespeare wrote and if people don’t understand it … well tough titties!”
Macbeth is played by Sean Bean who has wanted to play the role since seeing his Lord Of The Rings co-star Ian McKellen, play it as a teenager. Along with Samantha Bond and Glover himself they provide the star pulling power that could draw an entirely new audience to this production. “When we played Milton Keynes the audience was filled with people under the age of fifteen. It was quite remarkable. They came to gawp at Sean Bean but went away saying ‘Shakespeare’s good, isn’t it!’ They really did do that and they’re doing it again in Richmond.” Again, Glover’s immense passion for Shakespeare bubbles over like a witch’s cauldron on heat. “It’s tricky to get young people to appreciate Shakespeare. It can’t be done in the classroom. It has to be done in the theatre. You’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to experience it. Once you’re grabbed by it, then you can go into the classroom.”
“It’s absolutely what Shakespeare wrote and if people don’t understand it … well tough titties!”
As if acting in one of the biggest shows to come to the West End this year wasn’t enough, Glover is also about to be in one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. However, it may be slightly harder to recognise him in this role as his usual body has been replaced by an animatronic arachnid. “I baulked at actually playing a spider… I haven’t got enough legs! I’m already getting fan-mail for it. All I play is the voice of a spider.”
“The problem is that when you get older the parts start to run out. Because of the National Health Service there are still quite a lot of us about all vying for the parts."
Having starred in three of the biggest films of the last three decades – For Your Eyes Only, The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – he really should be used to getting fan-mail from the most crazed of followers by now, even if, disappointingly, he didn’t enjoy every moment of filming them. “I found doing Empire extraordinarily boring. I had a conversation with a black carapace with an actor who wasn’t even the voice of Darth Vader inside it. I sat in a cockpit of something they hadn’t even invented yet, speaking stuff which didn’t mean anything at all.” When you put it that way…
In considering some of the major movie roles of Glover’s career, a Bond baddie, General in Darth Vader’s Imperial army and a giant spider, evil and ominous images spring uncommanded into your mind. Although these feelings are not normally associated with either the gentle king Duncan or the comic mumblings of the Porter, the two roles which Glover will play in Macbeth, on closer consideration the link becomes a little clearer. “The Porter is the sort of part I’m not normally asked to play, but [director] Ed Hall has asked me to play it for particular reasons. He sees it as a very sinister area of the play: The Porter Of Hell. So that’s what I do, but I hope he’s funny as well”. A joke-cracking gatekeeper of the fiery kingdom? Service with a smile!
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Is there anything left for this stalwart of stage and screen to achieve in his already illustrious career? “The problem is that when you get older the parts start to run out. Because of the National Health Service there are still quite a lot of us about all vying for the parts. If you work at all you’re lucky, so I count myself extraordinarily lucky to be doing this job now.”