Today’s column is a tribute to Mike Leigh, whose plays have been featured this week on BBC Television. Leigh is sometimes criticized for being obsessed with lower-middle-class attitudes; as a corrective to this we bring you extracts from Mike Leigh’s version of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s powerful study of elitist ambition.
Enter Mrs Macbeth. She switches on the telephone answering device.
‘… It was really weird, dear. As you know, I am not a believer in astrology, but when she said that I would be promoted to Cawdor, then made area manager at Glamis and end up running the whole Scottish division, well, it was like she was reading my thoughts. Anyway, keep it under your hat, dear, and I’ll be home as soon as possible.’
Mrs Macbeth: That’s all I need. Just when I’m getting the flat in Inverness set up nicely, he wants to move to Cawdor. Has he seen Cawdor? Has he ever been to Cawdor? Enter Macbeth, taking off his coat. Have you any idea what Cawdor’s like? It’s a tiny village, for heaven’s sake. There isn’t a decent bistro for miles. And don’t put your wet coat on those ornamental daggers! My parents didn’t bring them all the way back from Spain just for you to get rust on them, yah?
Macbeth: Sorry, dear, Look, about Cawdor…
Mrs Macbeth: I’m not going to Cawdor and that’s flat. How can we, anyway? Mr Thane runs the Cawdor branch.
Macbeth: That’s just it. He’s left. He’s gone to work for this Norwegian firm. And Mr Duncan has given me the Cawdor promotion.
Mrs Macbeth: That’s all I need. You have no consideration, have you? Well, let me tell you, you go to Cawdor, but I’m staying here in Inverness. Oh, just let me talk to Mr Duncan.
Macbeth: That’s just it! Mr Duncan is in Inverness today and he’s asked if we can give him dinner.
Mrs Macbeth: That’s all I need! Your sales director, on half-closing day. And where am I going to get prawns and saffron rice from for a paella, may I ask?
Macbeth: There’s that Asian shop near the station…
Mrs Macbeth: Then off you go. And get some garlic while you’re at it, yah?
Dinner that night
Mr Duncan: Excellent paella, Mrs Macbeth, though I shouldn’t really eat rich things. You like Spain?
Mrs Macbeth: Oh, great. I think Spain’s fantastic. Just look at these amazing daggers my parents brought back from Toledo last year. My father is a garage-owner in Glasgow, very strong-willed, while my mother is a crushed butterfly with a sort of internal strength…
Macbeth: There’s no need to go on about your parents, dear.
Mrs Macbeth: Well, I happen to think, personally, that if you don’t know your background and parents, you can’t possibly hope to know what sort of person you are yourself.
Macbeth: This puts orphans in a sorry situation, dear.
Mr Duncan: Yes, well about those daggers…
Mrs Macbeth: Oh, yah. Do look at the beautiful workmanship close to, it’s really brilliant, go on, look… oops.
Macbeth: Now you’ve done it. He’s dead. This isn’t going to look very good at head office.
Mrs Macbeth: Oh, you’re so wishy-washy. We’ll think of something.*
Dinner at the Macbeth’s new house.
Mrs Macbeth: Yes, apparently Mr Duncan had this heart-condition and whether it was the food or not we don’t know, but he suddenly fell forward and I was holding this – oh, it was terrible.
Diner: Yes, it must have ruined your evening.
Mrs Macbeth: Shall we eat now, dear?
Macbeth: Well, we ought really to wait for the banker. I need to create a good impression on him.
Mrs Macbeth: I’ll give you five more minutes… Have you seen this wineskin we brought back from Torremolinos, Mr Macduff?
Enter banker’s ghost. He points dramatically at his heart to indicate a coronary.
Macbeth: On second thoughts, I think we can go ahead and eat.
Mrs Macbeth: Well, make up your mind.
Two weeks later.
Mrs Macbeth: And now the terrible news about Mr Macduff’s wife and children. Why does everyone keep dying like this? Personally, I think it’s stress. Promotion, stress, pressure, heart attack. I told you not to accept the Cawdor job. Now you’re head of the Scottish operation… I suppose you’re feeling all right?
Macbeth: Yes, dear.
Mrs Macbeth: You’ll be the next to go, mark my words.
Macbeth: I don’t think so dear.
A hospital. Enter Mrs Macbeth, rambling.
Mrs Macbeth: I will never get these hands soft again; they’re so rough and chapped. A glass of amontillado? That would be lovely, yah. Oh, look at those sweet castanets!
Macbeth Is it like this all the time?
Doctor: I’m afraid so, Mr Macbeth. In medical parlance, she’s due for the funny farm.
Macbeth (speaking into his desk phone): I shall be going to my wife’s funeral at three. While I’m out, check that report from Dunsinane, would you? I think they’ve got it all wrong. And send in Mr Macduff, would you? Enter Macduff.
Macduff: Bad news, I’m afraid, Macbeth. I’ve been sent to tell you we’re closing down the Scottish side of the firm. And you’re for the chop.
Macbeth: But I… (He has a heart attack and dies.)
Macduff: Hmm. Perhaps I could have broken that more gently. Well, that leaves just me. I wonder what sort of ending Mike wants, Given my background, what would I do now? Hmm… (He speaks into the desk phone.) Get Mr Leigh for me, would you? Yes, very urgent.
The Times, 1995