Some interesting advice from the Campaigns & Elections website.
I’ve always thought of Macbeth as being the politician’s play.
“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent. Only a vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls upon th’other.”
Bullingdon Club anyone?
I learned that quote in the third year at school. Given that both the RSC and National Theatre have it performed this season I’m assuming it is part of the GCSE syllabus this year. Got to fill the matinee seats somehow.
The theme that the RSC version at the Barbican wants to draw out is time. And to make sure we don’t miss the point they are trying to make, there’s a bloody big clock counting down the two hours between Duncan’s death and the exit of Macbeth from the throne. In a less clunky touch, once Malcolm became king the clock re-set itself. Apparently an early version of this staging also had key quotes about time projected onto the screen above the stage as they were delivered. Just to make those GCSE papers even more uniform I suppose. If the director were truly to embrace the politicians idea then maybe the clock could have been set to five years.
The other regularly quoted theme for the play is children. The Macbeths have none surviving and so they know their shift on the throne is all that their family will have. They spend much of their limited time and effort trying to off Malcolm, Macduff-lets and various other threats rather than on the principle idea of governing. Seeking a second term on the basis of no viable alternative is not a winning strategy, as they find out.
The children theme is taken in an interesting way here as the three witches are primary school poppets in red dresses and white socks. They chant in unison and move in a slightly creepy Shining-esque manner. They are also employed as scene shifters, which means they are a continuous flitting presence across the stage.
Less successful is the idea of Macbeth as horror. Ghosts and prophesies are good opportunities for this, but Banquo’s ghost was not very scary – the steward’s ghost far more un-nerving as the denouement approached. Which meant that Christopher Ecclestone’s rolling around on the floor seemed a bit over the top in the circumstances. Perhaps we would have believed it more if Banquo had been a reporter from the Telegraph enquiring about Macbeth MP’s expenses?
Ecclestone is, let’s face it, most known now for his turn as Doctor Who. Strange then that this role doesn’t make it into his biography in the programme. Presumably not enough room and something had to go. He is a fine actor in general and takes on Macbeth as a bluff northerner, more used to the battlefield than Question Time. That’s great, but Coriolanus is also written for that interpretation and fits more naturally. So we don’t get the sense of ambition, the sense of entitlement that Macbeth should have. It doesn’t come naturally to Ecclestone’s character and Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth doesn’t manage to imbue it in him. Which is a shame, because Cusack is great in her Glamis scenes early on. Sadly the pared down script loses some of the subtleties (perhaps in an effort to speed the whole performance up and keep the idea of time foremost). And so the idea behind ‘out damn spot’ is completely lost. Not least that she makes the speech standing next to an office water cooler.
And so, in ‘hamburger’ fashion, I’ll end with a couple more good thoughts.
A constant presence is the Porter who chalks up the death count on the walls of the stage. It is Barbican. It is a big stage. Seeing the play through his eyes was an interesting idea and director Polly Findlay has added a lot of unspoken stuff for him, including pushing a carpet cleaner around in an unconvincing effort to clear up the blood. But we laughed once too often at his asides when he was directing Macduff to Macbeth’s location before the final battle. That’s sort of meant to be the dramatic conclusion, but we lost it with a laugh.
Which is a shame because Macduff was also a good thing. Portrayed by Edward Bennett as a bank manager type in a cardigan, his gradual understanding of the deaths of his family – “ALL my pretty ones…?” was understated and perfect. The final fight, between Macbeth and his bank manager should only have gone one way, of course. But, Ecclestone gives himself up, Obi Wan Kenobi-style, when the clock reaches zero. Perhaps Macduff is actually the Returning Officer?
Politicians who say they are certain about something are descending into mediocrity. Not mentioning any current POTUS names here, but that was one of the messages from former White House staffer (George W Bush era) Pippa Malmgren in a talk at Chatham House this evening.
Dr Malmgren was talking about her book on leadership. She advises businesses and politicians in the US, UK and around the world and, whilst I disagree with a lot of her politics, her leadership ethos seems to have something going for it.
Such as: Leaders who immerse themselves in detail need to raise their heads up once in a while and understand what is going on in the world around them. For all that people said that no one saw Trump’s election coming or predicted the result of the Brexit vote (although obviously people did), a good leader needs to plan for a range of eventualities and avoid positions which rely on a certainty that might be very wrong. They can’t rely on a limited range of information, sources or evidence, even if they have got you to where you are now. They have to judge the public mood and think about what different outcomes might mean for their business, cause or campaign.
Business leaders are stuck in the past, she says – typically by a margin of 10 years or so. Many of them still look to China as being the economy of the future. But the Chinese leadership itself doesn’t have this view. They are working with wage inflation in their workforce and so they are choosing to shift some of their GDP offshore. That is the foundation of the belt and road initiative to improve infrastructure in many countries where they have economic interests.
A heads up view would see the inflationary rise in wheat prices in 2008-10 and realise that this had the potential to cause problems in countries which are massively reliant on that crop as a part of their diet. It was one of the causes of the Arab Spring she and others argue. (Ditto pork prices in China and corn in Mexico).
The other key factor for leaders is the rise of data availability and the ability to compute it. In the UK we have seen Aviva introduce an app that measures your driving. In the USA, insurer John Hancock requires the owners of some policies to wear a fitbit. And there are banks that use artificial intelligence to spot certain likelihoods with their account holders – such as an impending divorce.
AI also allows facial recognition software to identify not just who you are, but your mood and whether or not you are lying. Useful in diplomacy, of course. But also for business people trying to do a deal. And the exponential jump in computing power will both minitiarise products and bring them into the price range of individuals and firms as well as governments.
So if certainty is a bad idea, why have we seen the rise in populists like Trump winning elections. After all, isn’t he the very definition of public certainty? Well yes. He was wise enough to catch a public mood and ride that wave to electoral success. But in order to win again he will have to find another wave and ride that one successfully too. The promise to repeal Obamacare was one of his main messages in 2016, but Pew Research says that the issue is nowhere near as important to his base now. Populism itself is not enought to win. The BBC might beg to differ, but there are plenty of populists who have not found a big enough wave yet – AfD, Swedish Democrats and Gert Wilders, for example. So far it is only Orban who has won again and again in a relatively democratic structure on a populist message.
The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century by Pippa Malmgren and Chris Lewis is published by Kogan Page Inspire