For nearly 15 years, on the Monday nights I'm in town I've driven to a house at a nearby beach where a group of people (all women, although we've had men in the past) meet to read Shakespeare. At least five times in the cycle of tragedies we've tackled Macbeth, and when its time comes around again we sigh like veterans of a recurring febrile event.
Who gets which part depends on where we sit, or who feels up to tackling, in a reasonable impression of intelligible speech, a soliloquy that demands his surcease, success; heaven's Cherubins, hors'd; and no spur to prick. We are not actors or experts, or even particularly seriously minded amateurs. We've learned to conquer the jittery buzz that precedes voice projection by slowing down our breathing, or reaching for the wine bottle, or simply packing it in and letting the next reader have a go. All of us have fluffed lines, mispronounced and stopped, mid-sentence, to backtrack in search of meaning.
"What is this in compt?" asks Charlotte, our Danish speaker, who is honing her adopted language with English written not long after the accession of James I.
"Haven't a clue," is the usual response, and it's eyes down to the notes where, in my case, Kenneth Muir gives "subject to account" - and we glance at the next line, which has "audit", and collectively puzzle out Lady M's reply to the king until Charlotte nods, or our patient hostess, Meg, clears the fog with a quick wipe of the windscreen.
It takes us about four meetings to get through a play, more if it's Hamlet. Some evenings we can't get going at all. Someone will arrive late with downcast eyes and a bottle of red already open. "What happened?" we ask, handing around the plate of nibbles and giving each other searching looks in case one of the group already knows the answer. These relationships - us to each other, and each to the readings - have the continuity of a long marriage and are composed of similar small miracles. If the current drama has more punch than the words on the page, we close our books and attend.
It was Meg's small advertisement in the local paper that netted the first group of Monday nighters. Each applicant, including me, quailed at the prospect of being found inadequate. What if Shakespeare's profundities and higher-order themes whizzed straight over our heads? What if we didn't know our history, our Henrys from our Richards? Would we be laughed at or, worse, be made to suffer the fate of the kid who has to hear it twice before the rest of the class can move on?
To every expression of beginner's fear, Meg has offered her simple message: that Shakespeare (and poetry) is for everybody, not just the highly educated, and that the reward for reading aloud and unconsciously committing certain lines, even whole stories, to memory will steal up on us one day when we least expect it. In our current group of seven, three trained in science, three in the arts, and one didn't get past the Intermediate Certificate in high school. As for Meg, she taught Macbeth over and over in her long career, and wrote her doctoral thesis on subliminal signals in Shakespeare's language. This information would be unnerving if we hadn't all lifted off the heavy coats of our backgrounds at the door and hung them on pegs. Meg is as implicated as any of us when we open to Act I and meet the first splash of blood, 13 lines in.
For moments of communal intensity it is hard to think of any scene more compelling than the murder of Macduff's children. I defy anyone to gloss over "all my pretty ones".
Evelyn, who takes Ross's part, is unusually taut on the night she reads: "But I have words / That would be howl'd out in the desert air / Where hearing should not latch them."
"Dispute it like a man," cautions Meg, who is reading Malcolm.
The group nods respectfully as I, reading Macduff, reply: "I shall do so; But I must feel it as a man."
Charlotte can't see what the problem is. Why the distinction between "dispute" and "feel"?
Meg nudges us back to the text. "Macduff is a nobleman," she says, shooting out one of her appraising looks.
"And a husband and a father," says Evelyn, who has the gist of the man, who saw the integrity in Macduff while we were dazzled by Macbeth and his ménage of mad women. "If he was just a nobleman, Ross wouldn't be dillydallying."
She stabs her finger on Ross's speech. We all look up suddenly. Evelyn hasn't lost the plot. She's deep inside its truth. She is simultaneously both men: Ross, the bearer of hideous news, and Macduff, the one who must receive it. We don't need scholars to interpret the pain. We each flinch, pause, internalise, go to a personal loss and review it in raw memory.
Slowly, examples from our own lives spool out.
Pam tells of having to bring the news of her sister's sudden death to a dinner party already in progress. I suddenly recollect ringing a good friend whose husband had promised to install cupboards; how self-righteously angry I was that he hadn't called after I'd stayed in, waiting; how she gently calmed me, how she led me by manageable degrees to the declaration, "Jack died last night," and how she, who deserved full possession of the grief, nursed me through my explosion of tears and regret.
It isn't all moist eyes and recovered memories. The porter's scene can be whatever we make of it on the night. For those who studied Shakespeare at university (and that excludes me), the scene is De Quincey's "awful parenthesis" or Coleridge's "low soliloquy". The group doesn't care too much; we accept the text as it stands, indulging our groundling funny bones with a few knowing snorts on the subject of the three things drink provokes.
When we want a rest from the plays, we have a month or two of poetry. Bring what you like, Meg says - bring copies if you can organise yourself. Poetry that has been locked up in books gets a generous run around our table. How else would I have found my way to ‘Dover Beach' or Bruce Dawe's ‘Mrs Swipe', or Coleridge's ‘Cristabel', or to Billy Collins' ‘Marginalia'?
We have always known that these Monday nights will come to an end. For me, the inevitable fadeout will be a double whammy. Meg was my high-school English teacher for a year in the mid '60s, and the first authority figure I ever saw brought to tears by a speech in a play. I remember the nervous embarrassment and the sideways looks we girls gave each other, but more usefully I remember the triumphant spin she put on the playwright's virtuosity. "Each word inches us forward, so that we are delivered" - she mopped her eyes - "to this theatrical precipice."
The sweet symmetry of finding Meg living (and presenting evenings with Shakespeare) very near the town I landed in after leaving Sydney is not one of the happy accidents on which so many of the plays turn. Ever since I fled school before the finals, I've been running into Meg. The first time was at a bus stop where, in five minutes, she persuaded me to sit my exams externally. Thereafter, we met by design in this country and in others for brief periods, until one day, 20-odd years after leaving school, I drove to a pretty headland not far from her new house and acted on a For Sale sign.
Before visiting Meg recently at her hospital bed, I thought hard about what to bring. I knew she'd light up over the camellia cut from my own bush, and the fresh pawpaw; it was the question of which book and why.
I asked if there was a particular story she wanted to read, or if she had any questions about her medications (the only skill I can muster at short notice). She answered no to both propositions. "My eyes aren't up to much, or my brain for that matter. And what they give me I take like a trusting child, mouth open, hoping it won't taste like castor oil." When I said I'd brought Macbeth, she smiled like a fond teacher whose pupil has finally said something profound.
I pulled the book from my bag and proposed reading to her from Act II, Scene II, the bit where the Macbeths are going at each other while the king lies murdered in his bed. She blinked in a sleepy way and said, "I have the play in here," indicating her heart. I waited in silence. Had she fallen asleep? In the overheated room I could easily have nodded off myself. Leaning in close, I realised she was saying the lines aloud. Her voice suddenly reached for and achieved its former clarity. "I heard the owl scream and the cricket cry. Or is it crickets, plural?"
I did some speed reading. "Plural," I answered.
"I wonder why. Perhaps crickets go about in groups."
Now, some weeks later, Meg is home resting and I find myself marking the absence of our Monday gatherings. Questions about the habits of crickets or the purpose of witches will have to arise from my own reading. There will be no more handholding along the primrose way.
Macbeth, the murdering hellhound, could care less.
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