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Mystery surrounds roots of the Macbeth curse

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Weird Sisters
Suzanne Warmanen, Isabell Monk O'Connor and Barbara Bryne as the witches in the Guthrie's production of "Macbeth." Some people say the overtones of the occult in the play have led to the play being cursed.
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater (photo Michal Daniel)

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis opens a brand new production of Macbeth this weekend - and that makes some people a little nervous. In some circles Shakespeare's bloody tragedy is believed to be cursed. 

Even if you have never seen a production of "Macbeth," chances are you know the story, or even some of the lines, like "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightening, or in rain?"

The story opens with the witches, the weird sisters who predict the rise, and ultimately the fall of a man prepared to murder his way to the throne of Scotland.

It's always been one of the most popular, and most performed of Shakespeare's works. But stories abound of accidents, falling scenery, even deaths linked to the play. So theater people often believe it has to be treated with the utmost caution. 

"I completely buy into all the superstitions with that play, having had my own horrible frightening time with it," says Sally Wingert.

Wingert is one of the Twin Cities most respected actors. However she will not quote from, nor name what's known as 'the Scottish play' when inside a theater. She won't even say the title character's name. She says it's best just not to tempt fate.

Unhappy couple
Michelle O'Neill (Lady Macbeth) and Erik Heger (Macbeth) in the new Guthrie production.
Image courtesy of the Guthrie Theater (photo by Michal Daniel)

"I know many, many productions that something has gone wrong, and it certainly went wrong with ours," she said. 

That production happened years ago at the Guthrie. Wingert was cast as one of the witches. In rehearsal she noticed some tension between the director and the actor playing Lady Macbeth, but nothing out of the ordinary. 

Then the day before the first preview, Wingert got a call. The director had just fired Lady Macbeth, so Wingert would assume the role for the entire run.

"I know many, many productions that something has gone wrong, and it certainly went wrong with ours."

"And I instantly burst into tears, I was shaking. I said, 'I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. This is not... no, no, no." 

She did it, though the actor playing Macbeth was in agony and missed many shows because he needed a hip replacement. Wingert has believed in the Macbeth curse ever since. 

But here's the thing: no-one can pinpoint the origin of the curse.  

Katherine Schiel teaches Shakespeare at the University of Minnesota. She says there is a story that the actor who played Lady Macbeth in the first production in the early 1600's died during the run, and Shakespeare himself took over the role. However, she says there is no evidence that actually occurred.  

Schiel says the play's dabbling in the occult has been suggested as the root of the curse - or perhaps just the story itself.

Katherine Scheil
Katherine Scheil teaches Shakespeare at the University of Minnesota. She says no-one knows where the idea of a curse originated, although there are many theories.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"You know the play has a lot of violence and a lot of sword play," Scheil says. "And a lot of scenes in the dark, which increases the possibility for something to go wrong." 

And then you get to economics. As a known crowd-pleaser 'Macbeth' is often performed by theater companies with money problems trying to fill seats.

"So corners may have been cut elsewhere in the production process which may increase the possibility for for some sort of disaster or problem," says Scheil.

And then if the company does fail - what's to blame? Why 'the Scottish play' of course.

Joe Dowling's having nothing of it.

"Don't blame it on the play," he says. "Blame it on the individual actors who didn't do the choreography they were supposed to do. Blame it on the director who didn't clearly mark out what he or she was meant to do, Don't blame it on poor old Shakespeare!" 

Dowling is the Guthrie Theater artistic director, and he's directing this Macbeth. It's his second production of the play. He says his first one in Washington was accident free. He has no time for the curse.

Artistic Director Joe Dowling
Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling says he doesn't believe in the Macbeth curse.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"And now I say it out loud and proud: Macbeth! I'm in a theater and I'm saying it," he laughs.

Dowling prefers to talk about the way Shakespeare created a dark psychological thriller about blind ambition. Dowling says Macbeth himself knows things are going to end badly.

"But he still goes ahead, because the golden round, the idea of the crown is so impressive to him, he has to go ahead and murder Duncan." 

The new production of Macbeth opens this evening at the Guthrie. 

Now there is one more twist to this story. In a St. Paul production of Macbeth in 1970, actor George Ostroska died of a heart attack while playing the lead role. Veteran Guthrie actor Charles Keating, who was directing the show, took over as Macbeth the next night as a benefit for Ostroska's family. 

Now we have tape of Keating telling that story. But can we find it? 

No. 

Makes you wonder about that curse.