Last night I experienced a former Time Lord playing a Shakespearean villain being cross-examined in court by Newsnight’s former grand inquisitor Jeremy Paxman.
No, I hadn’t been hitting the bottle before bed. Instead, I was having a rather surreal evening at the Noel Coward Theatre in London watching Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth alongside Paxo in a one-off courtroom drama.
The Trial of Macbeth imagined what it would be like if Shakespeare’s Scottish anti-hero were to appear in a court of law to be tried for the murder of King Duncan. Using only the evidence available, could a line-up of top QCs prove his innocence?
Eccleston sat hand-cuffed and stony-faced in the dock as real lawyers cross-examined him, and questioned witnesses to the crime. He was adamant that he hadn’t murdered the king, and in a very gentlemanly way, blamed his wife for the whole thing.
Paxman played the jury foreman who, thankfully, delivered the Not Guilty verdict in the speedy and efficient manner that he demands from his University Challenge contestants.
The event, part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival – a charity which helps children of all backgrounds to perform the playwright’s work – was also directed by Eccleston, who is a big supporter of the cause.
The actors and QCs worked from a basic script, but most of what they said was entirely improvised, allowing for lots of humour as Shakespeare’s poetry wilted under the cold, hard language of the law. When Macduff (Peep Show‘s Paterson Joseph) described to the prosecution how he had found King Duncan’s “silver skin laced with his golden blood”, the lawyer responded, “Do you mean he was dead?”.
As witnesses like Lady Macbeth (played by stage actress Haydn Gwynne) and Banquo (David Oakes, The White Queen) finished giving their evidence, the judge asked the jury whether (with the death penalty the punishment for treason in Shakespeare’s time) Eccleston was to be exterminated. There were plenty of opportunities for Doctor Who jokes and they weren’t lost on the audience, who whooped and cheered at the Tardis references.
Paxman kept breaking into laughter on stage, as did many of the QCs who were thoroughly enjoying grilling the elusive witches and a very stressed Lady Macbeth, but Eccleston maintained an impressively straight face throughout, looking increasingly worried about his sentencing – or perhaps the fact that no matter what else he does, he can never escape from Doctor Who…
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