Comedy troupe The Penny Dreadfuls: Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a load of rubbish

David Reed from the troupe explains how The Scottish Play doesn’t tell the full story and how his Radio 4 version is closer to the truth

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You’ve done a couple of historical comedies before on Radio 4 (Hereward the Wake and Guy Fawkes). What drew you to Macbeth this time?

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I’m just drawn to the idea of the people we think we know something about but actually we know very little. And Macbeth struck me as one of those we think of as a fictional character, or certainly the only things we know about the historical figure are fictional, because Shakespeare made nearly all of them up.

So I thought it would be a fun idea to construct a story out of the things we do know were probably the case, rather than this tale about a murdering man who kills the king when he’s a guest in his own castle, which as far as we can see from historical sources is a load of rubbish.

It appeals to the puzzle solver in me, to read up about the historical events and everything that happened and then try to construct a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end out of it. 

Shakespeare seems to play fast and loose with the facts quite a lot, portraying historical figures differently to the reality.

Oh absolutely, he was all for, as we say in the play, “cosying up to the establishment”.  It was all because there was a new king and he wanted to be in with him so his theatre could stay open.

It’s fascinating that it was in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot being discovered that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, because no-one believed the plotters would have been able to come up with something so devilish just on their own without some supernatural force. He was riding the zeitgeist at the time. It helped that King James himself was obsessed with demons and had written a book called Demonology. So it was very much, ‘The establishment will love this!’

I just wanted to try to write a story that painted Macbeth in a different light if not a more accurate one.

So does Macbeth Rebothered adhere closer to historical sources?

I would say so, but it’s a thousand years ago so all the historical sources are a bit patchy. Certainly in terms of Macbeth killing the lovely, Santa Claus-type figure that was King Duncan whilst he slept, there’s no evidence for that at all. So in terms of Macbeth being the villain and Duncan being this innocent, wise old king, it’s complete rubbish. So in that respect we are closer.

And in the fact that Macbeth married Lady Macbeth who already had a child from her previous marriage after Macbeth killed her husband. That all seems to be true as well. I’m trying to weave a satisfying story about a man out of the events that are likely to have taken place.

With some comedy thrown in…

Gags, yes. It’s not parody, but we’ve thrown in a few nods to Shakespeare’s version. So the Porter is in there, who was a complete fabrication and the witch is in there and there are allusions to horses eating each other as well. 

You also make mention of “the Scottish play”, do you know the origins of that curse?

I don’t actually, I’ve not looked into that. I’d love to know which of [the myriad stories] was true. I wonder if it’s just one of those things that’s a word-of-mouth publicity stunt, that would be my guess. It seems almost too neat there is a curse surrounding a play that involves witchcraft. There’s not a curse of A Comedy of Errors; it’s the one with the thunder and lightning and the cackling witches.

You make the joke about it being called “the Scottish play, because there are no others”. But hearing that, my mind went blank and I couldn’t think of any.

Well, I’m sure our Scottish brethren would be able to enlighten us on that, but there must be hundreds of Scottish playwrights. There is a very active theatre scene, but in terms of plays that have stood the test of time…erm…I’d be hard pressed to think of one myself as well. 

Like you say there must be hundreds of them…

Blackwatch, that’s one. That was very good, that is a Scottish play I would say. I was in the sitcom Gary; Tank Commander with Greg McHugh and a cast member from that, Scott, was in Blackwatch.

So was Gary: Tank Commander where you met Greg McHugh, who plays Macbeth in Macbeth Rebothered?

Greg and I had known each other from the comedy circuit already, and he was our first choice for Macbeth just because he’s so good but we knew he would get our sense of humour as well. Greg wrote the part of Rupert Fanshawe in Tank Commander for me, with the idea that I could play a preposterous toff who sounds English but claims to be 100 per cent Scottish. I understood those people. My Scottish family don’t have Scottish accents. it was a bit of reciprocal casting.

Had you also worked with Susan Calman (the play’s narrator) before?

Yes, we’d done her show at the Fringe and been on her chat show, and thought she was brilliant. It’s a 50/50 thing of wanting to get people you think are really, really good and will nail the laughs and make the whole thing work as a piece, and then also getting in some genuine Scottish voices to try to curtail the tide of people thinking we’ve done a terrible thing by impersonating their accents. I hope we didn’t butcher them too much.  

So many comedy acts have gone from Radio 4 to TV. Do you have similar ambitions for the Penny Dreadfuls?

Oh yes, we’re always up for new things and I think TV would definitely work. We’d love to, hands down, no problem. For now we’re ploughing ahead with these radio plays and another one has been commissioned already. We’re doing Homer’s Odyssey next year. The Odyssey in an hour, that will be fun. I think I’ll be doing a lot of writing over Christmas to get that one under time.

So TV’s on hold?

We’ve got ideas in the pipeline and we’re talking to people, but it’s always a little harder to get people to commit to historical things, simply because a really old hat costs more than no hat and a nice Victorian drawing room costs a lot more than a featureless tunnel, for instance.

But so far we’ve had one radio play a year since we started and long may it continue, I’ve really enjoyed doing it.

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The Penny Dreadfuls: Macbeth Rebothered is on Radio 4 on Saturday at 2:30pm