Gruesome. -- The Times
Heroically ludicrous. -- The Daily Mail
A roaring-boy performance by Peter O'Toole that is about as subtle as a battering-ram -- The Guardian
Chances are he likes the play, but O'Toole's performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it. -- The Observer
don't trust those reviews. The spectacle is far worse than has hitherto been made out, a milestone in the history of coarse acting. -- Sunday Times
All during rehearsals for his new production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," which last week opened a heavily publicized repertory season celebrating 100 years of continuous theater at London's historic Old Vic, Peter O'Toole was terrified of the reputed curse on the play.
The Old Vic program for the play detailed the legendary "history of disaster" surrounding "Macbeth," from its first gory performance for King James I, who personally commissioned it but was appalled by its violence, through centuries of deaths, injuries, illnesses and other misfortunes visited on actors, directors and stage managers associated with the play.
O'Toole, who insisted in rehearsals and interviews that the play be referred to only as "Harry Lauder," after a Scottish vauderville singer blamed its curse for the breakup of his marriage and the death of a friend. He welcomed a backstage rehearsal visit by Princess Margaret, who told him she could take the curse off the production because she was born in Glamis. O'Toole also might have been mindful that he had not played a Shakespearean stage role for 17 years, making his fame and fortune in the movies instead, and that his handpicked director from the movies, Brian Forbes, had never worked in the theater before.
It turned out that O'Toole's fears were well-founded. After a first night in which he and Lady Macbeth walked into a wall on stage, a sword was bent in a clumsy, unintentionally comic sword fight, and the audience roared with laughter at what were suppposed to be shocking scenes of Macbeth and Banquo's ghost dripping and spurting blood, the play and O'Toole's performance were attacked more savagely by the critics than any major classical production in memory here.
The viciously cutting reviews produced an uproar of nasty public bickering among O'Toole, the critics, Old Vic artistic director Timothy West and members of the Old Vic's board, which dominated newspaper front pages over the weekend.
But all this bloodletting on and off the stage, adding nationwide notoriety to the celebrity O'Toole already brought to the production, has turned the critical disaster into a box-office bonanza. It has almost completely sold out for its limited run here and in four provincial English cities. It is also scheduled to be among the Old Vic plays to tour continental Europe with performances in Paris, Bonn, Vienna, Brussels, Milan and Zurich.
This could help save the Old Vic financially, despite the damage O'Toole's "Macbeth" may do to the theatrical reputation of the venerable stage, where Britain's respected National Theater performed before moving to a new theater complex nearby on the south bank of the Thames river. Macbeth is the first of a repertory season of six plays (West plays Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" later in the season) expected to make or break the theater during Britain's deep recession. O'Toole's name helped sell 6,500 subscriptions for all six plays in the first such ticket scheme in English theater history.
O'Toole had agreed to put on and star in "Macbeth" for the reportedly token salary of about $500 a week as long as he was given total control over what clearly became a very personal production of the play. During rehearsals, O'Toole described for interviewers an old fashioned, rip-roaring, big-screen cinematic vision of "Macbeth" on stage.
Except for Friday night, when the performance was canceled because of two bomb threats, last week's overflow audiences tittered and the critics shuddered at the production's heavy-handed melodrama and distracting, often amateurish light, sound an stage effects, particularly its excessive splattering of bright crimson blood ("Kensington gore," a dummy blood used by a London fire brigade for first aid demonstrations, apparently suggested by Princess Margaret, a patron of the brigade).
The tone of O'Toole's "Macbeth" is set immediately by the appearance of the three witches, all disconcertingly young, sexy and in frilly dress. "Far from being wild and withered in their attire, (they) look as if they shop at Fortnum and Mason's," complained the Guardian critic. "I suppose the idea is to chill the spectators through the contrast of youth and malevolence," speculated the man from the Times, "an objective that would have been better approached through capable verse speaking."
Most of the rest of the cast, selected by O'Tool, also were found wanting.
For example, the Times found Dudley Sutton "grotesquely miscast as Macduff, who may be many things but not a battered cherub." The Guardian reviewer decided many in the supporting cast "would qualify as walking shadows."
But the most stinging vitriol was saved for O'Toole himself. "Gaunt, lean, good-looking, he obviously brings a romantic presence to the part of Macbeth, but that is not enough," said the Guardian. "He delivers every line with a monotonous tenor bark as if addressing an audience of Eskimos who have never heard of Shakespeare."
The Daily Telegraph's man on the aisle described O'Toole on stage as "sloughing, loose-limbed, open-mouthed, sword-swinging, full of sound and fury, and highly theatrical in every line and gesture . . . . Too often he puts Shakespeare to his lips and blows it at us like a trumpet."
The Sunday Times reviewer concluded that O'Toole's "Macbeth" "stemmed from an utterly provate conception of persnal glory, a conception so private and so intense that it rejected any offer of help or advice in its realization, a conception that spurned the play, spurned the company and spurned the audience."
Far from being dismayed by this on-slaught, O'Toole, offstage, remained the swaggering, confident figure filmgoers have loved in "Lawrence of Arabia," "Becket," "The Lion in Winter" and "The Ruling Class." When he finally awoke the afternoon after the horrendous first night, he invited waiting reporters into his home in suburban Hampstead to declare his defiance of the critics.
"Half-truth, serious aberration and f------ lies," O'Toole said of the reviews read aloud to him by reporters as he strode around his memorabilia-filled "green room" in a long, green dressing gown, his graying hair still wild from sleep and his hands still caked with stage blood.
"I've been insulted by experts," he said. "Crushing reviews are okay if they are fair. Some of these are not. The reviews will be fish and chips paper tomorrow. The public takes no notice."
When told one reviewer said he "strides on in what one first takes to be the last stages of battle fatigue, his walk an exhausted lunge, his voice thick, hoarse and full of abrupt sledgehammer emphasis," O'Toole growled, " "arseholes." Reminded that this review appeared in the august Times, he added, "double arseholes."
Told that the Daily Mail critic had said "he is the first actor ever to set me off in fits of involuntary giggles through 'Macbeth,'" O'Toole answered, "I'm glad I made him laugh. It's in many ways a funny play, full of irony. But the trouble is that many in the audience laughed at the wrong times. They did not see the real humor."
Asked if it was true that Old Vic artistic director West wanted him to make changes in "Macbeth," O'Toole declared, "I will not change it."
"It was a competent performance. Not great, but fit for public consumption. I was not happy with my performance, but I will be better. The production will come together. It will be better."
But West, meanwhile, completely repudiated O'Toole's production in ungentlemanly radio and newspaper interviews. "I'm afraid I have to disown it," West, who has starred on BBC television as Churchill and Edward VII, told the London Evening Standard. "Peter contractually has total artistic control, and though I tried to talk to him about how he was playing it, he would not listen. I had enormous reservations, but by the time I was able to see it in rehearsal it was too late to try to get him to see reason."
O'Toole said the play was none of West's business. Director Forbes went on stage at the end of the second night's performance (which was warmly applauded after another evening of laughter in the wrong places) to answer West and the critics publicly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as you probably know, World War III was announced today," said Forbes. "We are bloodied but not yet bowed."
Referring to West, Forbes added, "I have always thought that Judas was one of the least attractive characters in human history, and would therefore like to say that I don't disown my company or my stage crew, my lighting crew or my sound crew. On the contrary, I stand with them and applaud them."
Lest his meaning not be clear, Forbes wrote a letter published in the next day's Times saying he considered West's statement to the press to be "a despicable act of artistic betrayal and a piece of commercial folly. Generals who speak from the safety of headquarters should not criticize those who are required to die in the front line."
West also was publicly criticized by a member of the Old Vic board and his predecessor as its artistic director, Toby Robertson, who said West's statements were "more damaging to the Vic's interest than bad notices."
Meanwhile, lines of ticket buyers stretched around the block and reservation phones rang constantly at the Old Vic and in Bristol, Leeds, Coventry and Liverpool, where the play will tour. Some said they wanted to see what all the fuss was about; others wanted to see O'Toole. Many who have now seen the play seemed to agree with the Daily Telegraph reviewer who, after tearing apart the production and O'Toole's performance, added that it nevertheless was "a play that will give audiences some rousing thrills and a knock-'em-down display of fireworks from a famous star."
The Daily Telegraph summed it all up in an editorial written with some license in Shakespearean verse, in which the critics bemoan the financial success of O'Toole's excesses while the long lines of ticket buyers make Old Vic artistic director West feel somewhat better. Enter O'Toole and West WEST: Thou canst not say I did it: never shake Thy gory locks at me. Foul whisperings are abroad. the show, my lord, is dead.
O'TOOLE: Blow wind, come wrack. at least we'll die with money in the bank. WEST: What! will the queue stretch out to the crack of doom? O'TOOLE: And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd: I bear a charmed life . . . I'd live to be the show and gaze o' the time. Enter two critics FIRST CRITIC: Stands showbiz where it did? SECOND CRITIC: Alas: poor darling. almost afraid to know itself. Look on't again, I dare not.
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill. O'TOOLE: How now, you secret, black and midnight hags! You have scotch'd the show, not killed it. CRITICS: Thou hast it now: King, Crawdor, Glamis, all and, I fear, thou play'dst most foully for it.