A talk by Sandra Clark
Thursday 16 June 2016
Senate House Library
Part of the 'Shakespeare: Metamorphosis' season
Review by Eleonora Sammartino, PhD candidate, Film Studies
The walk through the deserted halls of an after hours Senate House Library, offering a glimpse of the “Shakespeare: Metamorphosis” exhibition, and the sound of a summer thunderstorm brewing in the background provided a perfect eerily atmosphere to welcome the attendees to “Macbeth on the Victorian Stage”, the first of a series of three talks on the popularity of the Bard in the Victorian period, which will be held during the summer months at the Library.
During the following hour, Sandra Clark, Professor Emerita at the Institute of English Studies, guided the listeners through a journey that examined how different productions of Macbeth in the Victorian period reflected a change in attitude both in the approach to Shakespeare's text and in theatre practices. The talk focused on some key thespians, outlining their main contributions to the performance history of Macbeth, in dialogue with the contemporary social changes.
Actors like William Macready, who played the titular role various times between 1820 and 1851, represented a paradigmatic example of the growing interest for the acting process itself, looking for psychological authenticity and truth. Excerpts from his diary read by Clark gave a vivid insight into this elaboration exercise through quotes that conveyed Macready's obsession in becoming Macbeth.
Conversely, the antiquarianism of Charles Keane or the restoration work done by Samuel Phelps between the 1840s-1850s testified the love for big spectacles of both practitioners and audiences at the time alongside the research that went into the production of the play. The photographs and drawings employed by Clark to illustrate her talk managed to bring the audience closer to the period through a visual understanding of the costumes such as traditional Scottish kilts, and the grandiose set designs that often included extravaganzas like a water tank or special effects to recreate the appearance of Banquo's ghost.
Even more fascinating was Clark's exploration of Lady Macbeth in connection to changing ideals of femininity, tracing a clear trajectory from one end of the 19th century to the other. While Sarah Siddons's powerful and yet feminine performance still represented an important model in the early part of the century, actresses like Helena Faucit and Ellen Terry adapted their portrayal to their times and their stage partners. Faucit's reappraisal of the role was driven by psychological realism and pathos, offering a Lady M. motivated by her love for Macready's equally introspective Macbeth. Later in the century, Terry instead played the female protagonist as utterly domestic, pathetic in her childlessness, a delicate and yet sexual creature, reflecting a middle-class Victorian femininity, and proving herself to be a key factor in the success of Henry Irving's 1888 production.
Through this exemplary overview, delivered in an informative and always engaging tone, Clark successfully showed the importance of these actors' contribution to the production history of Macbeth and to that of theatre itself, demonstrating how the need to reform this social institution during the Victorian
period was met by this stage tradition, offering an answer to the altered social context as well. A process of metamorphosis that perfectly fits with the main theme of the Senate House's celebrations.