Authors: Ngaio Marsh
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #Traditional British, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)
Peregrine Jay, owner of the Dolphin Theatre, is putting on a magnificent production of Macbeth, the play that, superstition says, always brings bad luck. But one night the claymore swings and the dummy's head is more than real: murder behind the scene. Luckily, Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is in the audience…
For James Laurenson, who played The Thane
and for Helen Thomas (Holmes), who was his Lady, in the third production of the play
by The Canterbury University Players.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Peregrine Jay — Director, Dolphin Theatre
Emily Jay — His wife
Crispin, Robin, Richard — Their sons
Annie — Their cook
Jeremy Jones — Designer, Dolphin Theatre
Winter Meyer — Dolphin business manager
Mrs. Abrams — Secretary
Bob Masters — Stage manager
Charlie — Assistant stage manager
Ernie James — Property Master
Nanny — Miss Mannering’s dresser
Mrs. Smith — Mother of William
Roderick Alleyn — Chief Superintendent
Fox — Detective Inspector
Thompson — Detective Sergeant
Bailey — Detective Sergeant
Sir James Curtis — Pathologist
Peregrine Jay heard the stage door at the Dolphin open and shut and the sound of voices. The scene and costume designer and the lighting manager came through to the open stage. They wheeled out three specially built racks, unrolled their drawings, and pinned them up.
They were stunning. A permanent central rough stone stairway curved up to Duncan’s chamber. Two turntables articulated with this to represent, on the right, the outer facade of Inverness Castle or the inner courtyard, and on the left, a high stone platform with a gallows and a dangling rag-covered skeleton, or, turned, another wall of the courtyard. The central wall was a dull red arras above the stairway, open to the sky.
The lighting manager showed a dozen big drawings of the various sets with the startling changes brought about by his craft. One of these was quite lovely: an opulent evening in front of the castle with the setting sun bathing everything in splendor. One felt the air to be calm, gentle, and full of the sound of wings. A heavenly evening. And then, next to it, the same scene with the enormous doors opened, a dark interior, torches, a piper, and the Lady in scarlet coming to welcome the fated visitor.
“Jeremy,” Peregrine said, “you’ve done us proud.”
! It’s so bloody
. Here! Let’s up with the curtain. Jeremy?”
The designer went offstage and pressed a button. With a long-drawn-out sigh the curtain rose. The shrouded house waited.
“Light them, Jeremy! Blackout and lights on them. Can you?”
“It won’t be perfect but I’ll try.”
“Just for the hell of it, Jeremy.”
Jeremy laughed, moved the racks, and went to the lights console.
Peregrine walked through a pass-door to the front-of-house. Presently there was a total blackout, and then, after a pause, the drawings were suddenly there, alive in the midst of nothing and looking splendid.
“Only approximate, of course,” Jeremy said in the dark.
“Let’s keep this for the cast to see. They’re due now.”
“You don’t want to start them off with broken legs, do you?” asked the lighting manager.
There was an awkward pause.
“Well — no. Put on the light in the passage,” said Peregrine in a voice that was a shade too offhand. “No,” he shouted. “Bring down the curtain again, Jeremy. We’ll do it properly.”
The stage door was opened and more voices were heard, two women’s and a man’s. They came in exclaiming at the dark.
“All right, all
,” Peregrine called out cheerfully. “Stay where you are. Lights, Jeremy, would you? Just while people are coming in. Thank you. Come down in front, everybody. Watch how you go. Splendid.”
They came down. Margaret Mannering first, complaining about the stairs, in her wonderful warm voice with little breaks of laughter, saying she knew she was unfashionably punctual. Peregrine hurried to meet her.
! It’s all meant to start us off with a bang, but I do apologize. No more steps. Here we are. Sit down in the front row. Nina! Are you all right? Come and sit down, love. Bruce! Welcome, indeed. I’m so glad you managed to fit us in with television.”
I’m putting it on a bit thick, he thought. Nerves! Here they all come. Steady now.
They arrived singly and in pairs, having met at the door. They greeted Peregrine and each other extravagantly or facetiously, and all of them asked why they were sitting in front and not onstage or in the rehearsal room. Peregrine kept count of heads. When they got to seventeen and then to nineteen he knew they were waiting for only one: the Thane.
He began again, counting them off. Simon Morten, Macduff. A magnificent figure, six feet two. Dark. Black eyes with a glitter, thick black hair that sprang in short-clipped curls from his skull. A smooth physique not yet running to fat and a wonderful voice. Almost too good to be true. Bruce Barrabell, the Banquo. Slight. Five feet ten inches tall. Fair to sandy hair. Beautiful voice. And the King? Almost automatic casting — he’d played every Shakespearian king in the canon except Lear and Claudius, and played them all well if a little less than perfectly. The great thing about him was his royalty. He was more royal than any of the remaining crowned heads of Europe and his name actually was King: Norman King. The Malcolm was, in real life, his son — a young man of nineteen — and the relationship was striking.
There was the Lennox, sardonic man. Nina Gaythorne, the Lady Macduff, who was talking very earnestly with the Doctor. And I don’t mind betting it’s about superstition, thought Peregrine uneasily. He looked at his watch. Twenty minutes late, he thought. I’ve half a mind to start without him, so I have.
A loud and lovely voice and the bang of the stage door.
Peregrine hurried through the pass-door and up onto the stage.
“Dougal, my dear fellow, welcome,” he shouted.
“But I’m so sorry, dear boy. I’m afraid I’m a fraction late. Where is everybody?”
“In front. I’m not having a reading.”
“No. A few words about the play. The working drawings, and then away we go.”
“Come through. This way. Here we go.”
Peregrine led the way. “The Thane, everybody,” he announced.
It gave Sir Dougal Macdougal an entrance. He stood for a moment on the steps into the front-of-house, an apologetic grin transforming his face. Such a nice chap, he seemed to be saying, no upstage nonsense about him. Everybody loves everybody. Yes. He saw Margaret Mannering. Delight! Acknowledgment! Outstretched arms and a quick advance. “Maggie! My dear! How too lovely!” Kissing of hands and both cheeks. Everybody felt as if the central heating had been turned up another five points. Suddenly they all began talking.
Peregrine stood with his back to the curtain, facing the company with whom he was about to take a journey. Always it felt like this. They had come aboard: they were about to take on other identities. In doing this something would happen to them all: new ingredients would be tried, accepted, or denied. Alongside them were the characters they must assume. They would come closer and if the casting was accurate, slide together. For the time they were onstage they would be one. So he held. And when the voyage was over they would all be again, as Peregrine thought, a little bit different.
He began talking to them.
“I’m not starting with a reading,” he said. “Readings are okay as far as they go for the major roles, but bit-parts are bit-parts and as far as the Gentlewoman and the Doctor are concerned, once they arrive they are bloody important, but their zeal won’t be set on fire by sitting around waiting for a couple of hours for their entrance.
“Instead, I’m going to invite you to take a hard look at this play and then get on with it. It’s short and it’s faulty. That is to say, it’s full of errors that crept into whatever script was handed to the printers. Shakespeare didn’t write the silly Hecate bits so out she comes. It’s compact and drives quickly to its end. It’s remorseless. I’ve directed it, in other theatres, twice — each time, I may say, successfully and without any signs of bad luck — so I don’t believe in the bad-luck stories associated with it and I hope none of you do either. Or if you do, you’ll keep your ideas to yourselves. ”
He paused long enough to sense a change of awareness in his audience and a quick, instantly repressed, movement of Nina Gaythorne’s hands.
“It’s straightforward,” he said. “I don’t find any major difficulties or contradictions in Macbeth. He is a hypersensitive, morbidly imaginative man beset by an overwhelming ambition. From the moment he commits the murder he starts to disintegrate. Every poetic thought, magnificently expressed, turns sour. His wife knows him better than he knows himself and from the beginning realizes that she must bear the burden, reassure her husband, screw his courage to the sticking-place, jolly him along. In my opinion,” Peregrine said, looking directly at Margaret Mannering, “she’s not an iron monster who can stand up to any amount of hard usage. On the contrary, she’s a sensitive creature who has an iron
and has made a deliberate, evil choice. In the end she never breaks, but she talks and walks in her sleep. Disastrously.”
Maggie leaned forward, her hands clasped, her eyes brilliantly fixed on his face. She gave him a little series of nods. At the moment, at least, she believed him.
“And she’s as sexy as hell,” he added. “She uses it. Up to the hilt.”
He went on. The witches, he said, must be completely accepted. The play was written in James the First’s time at his request. James the First believed in witches. In their power and their malignancy. “Let us show you,” said Peregrine, “what I mean. Jeremy, can you?”
Blackout, and there were the drawings, needle-sharp in the focused lights.
“You see the first one,” Peregrine said. “That’s what we’ll go up on, my dears. A gallows with its victim, picked clean by the witches. They’ll drop down from it and dance clumsy widdershins around it. Thunder and lightning. Caterwauls. The lot. Only a few seconds and then they’ll leap up and we’ll see them in midair. Blackout. They’ll fall behind the high rostrum onto a pile of mattresses. Gallows away. Pipers. Lighted torches and we’re off.”
Well, he thought, I’ve got them. For the moment. They’re caught. And that’s all one can hope for. He went through the rest of the cast, noting how economically the play was written and how completely the inherent difficulty of holding the interest in a character as seemingly weak as Macbeth was overcome.
“Weak?” asked Dougal Macdougal. “You think him
, do you?”
“Weak, in respect of this one monstrous thing he feels himself drawn toward doing. He’s a most successful soldier. You may say ‘larger than life.’ He takes the stage, cuts a superb figure. The King has promised he will continue to shower favors upon him. Everything is as rosy as can be. And yet — and yet —”
“His wife?” Dougal suggested. “And the witches!”
“Yes. That’s why I say the witches are enormously important. One has the feeling that they are conjured up by Macbeth’s secret thoughts. There’s not a character in the play that questions their authority. There have been productions, you know, that bring them on at different points, silent but menacing, watching their work.
“They pull Macbeth along the path to that one definitive action. And then, having killed the King, he’s left — a Murderer. Forever. Unable to change. His morbid imagination takes charge. The only thing he can think of is to kill again. And again. Notice the imagery. The play closes in on him. And on us. Everything thickens. His clothes are too big, too heavy. He’s a man in a nightmare.
“There’s the break, the breather for the leading actor, that comes in all the tragedies. We see Macbeth once again with the witches and then comes the English scene with the boy Malcolm taking his oddly contorted way of finding out if Macduff is to be trusted, his subsequent advance into Scotland, the scene of Lady Macbeth speaking of horrors with the strange, dead voice of the sleepwalker.
“And then we see him again; greatly changed; aged, desperate, unkempt; his cumbersome royal robes in disarray, always attended by Seyton, who had grown in size. And so to the end.”
He waited for a moment. Nobody spoke.
“I would like,” said Peregrine, “before we block the opening scenes, to say a brief word about the secondary parts. It’s the fashion to say they’re uninteresting. I don’t agree. About Lennox, in particular. He’s likable, down to earth, quick-witted but slow to make the final break. There’s evidence in the imperfect script of some doubt about who says what. We will make Lennox the messenger to Lady Macduff. When next we see him he’s marching with Malcolm. His scene with an unnamed thane (we’ll give the lines to Ross), when their suspicion of Macbeth, their nosing out of each other’s attitudes, develops into a tacit understanding, is ‘modern’ in treatment, almost black comedy in tone.”
“And the Seyton?” asked a voice from the rear. A very deep voice.
“Ah, Seyton. Obviously, he’s ‘Sirrah,’ the unnamed servant who accompanies Macbeth like a shadow, who carries his great claymore, who joins the two murderers and later in the play emerges with a name — Seyton. He has hardly any lines but he’s ominous. A big, silent, ever-present amoral fellow who only leaves his master at the end. The very end. We’re casting Gaston Sears for the part. Mr. Sears, as you all know, in addition to being an actor is an authority on medieval arms and is already working for us in that capacity.” There was an awkward silence followed by an acquiescent murmur.
The saturnine person, sitting alone, cleared his throat, folded his arms, and spoke. “I shall carry,” he announced, basso-profundo, “a claidheamh-mor.”
“Quite so,” said Peregrine. “You are the sword-bearer. As for the —”
“— which has been vulgarized into ‘claymore.’ I prefer ‘claidheamh-mor,’ meaning ‘great sword’; it being—”
“Quite so, Gaston. And now —”
For a time the voices mingled, the bass one coming through with disjointed phrases: “… Magnus’s leg-biter… quillons formed by turbulent protuberances…”
“To continue!” Peregrine shouted. The sword-bearer fell silent.
“And the witches?” asked a helpful witch.
“Entirely evil,” answered the relieved Peregrine. “Dressed like fantastic parodies of Meg Merrilies but with terrible faces. We don’t see their faces until
look not like th’ inhabitants o’ the earth, and yet are on’t
, when they are suddenly revealed.”
“What about me, Perry? Braid Scots, too?” suggested the Porter.
“Yes. You enter through the central trap, having been collecting fuel in the basement. And,” Peregrine said with ill-concealed pride, “the fuel is bleached driftwood and
improperly shaped. You address each piece in turn as a farmer, as an equivocator, and as an English tailor, and you consign them all to the fire.”
“I’m a funny man?”
“We hope so.”
“Aye. Aweel, it’s a fine idea, I’ll gie it that. Och, aye. A bonny notion,” said the Porter.