Drunk at the gates of hell

Interview with Christopher Patrick Mullen on the Arden's 'Macbeth'

4 minute read

The groundlings at the Globe Theatre must have roared with laughter when they heard the drunk Porter’s slurred speech in Macbeth. More than 400 years later, Christopher Patrick Mullen’s rewrite of the speech brought down the house at the Arden, thanks to his shockingly modern version of that classic speech.

In conversation, Mullen said, “effectively, all of us deserve hell.” He cited Shakespeare’s verdict through the Porter: “Some of all professions go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.” Mullen paralleled this passage with Hamlet’s insight that, ultimately, we all get punished, “Use everyman after his desert, and who should scape whipping?”

Naming and shaming

He pointed out that in his version of the subversive speech, “we’re not shaming or naming names from 2015. We’re sticking to the Farmer, the Equivocator (the Lawyer), the Tailor (the fashion designer), etc.” But beyond that decision, director Alexander Burns not only allowed him to entirely shape the piece, but also told him to “highjack the play.”

Mullen said, “What’s on the page — no matter how well it’s done — is not funny. So I asked Alex if he wanted me to stick to what’s on the page, or let fly my own version of this Porter speech. And that’s exactly what we did.”

Mullen described “the hesitation [that] came in the decision to go off-book for the scene and create our own version — a delightful, ‘nervous making’ hesitation — the feeling that you’re taking a plunge into the unknown in the middle of one of the classics. It’s diabolical and, if it works, incredibly rewarding! Deciding to take that leap is nuts, and [yet] it’s freeing and fun.”

Rewriting Shakespeare

Here are three versions of the famous Porter’s speech (Act II, Scene 3): The original Shakespeare, the SparkNotes translation, and Mullen’s creative revamping.

SHAKESPEARE: Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i' th' name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty. Come in time, have napkins enough about you, here you’ll sweat for ’t.

SPARKNOTES: Knock, knock, knock! (pretending he’s the gatekeeper in hell) Who’s there, in the devil’s name? Maybe it’s a farmer who killed himself because grain was cheap. (talking to the imaginary farmer) You’re here just in time! I hope you brought some handkerchiefs; you’re going to sweat a lot here.

ARDEN: Knock, Knock — Who’s there in the name of Bizzle-boob? . . . I’ll get it, Booby! Oh, here’s a farmer! Oow . . . you hung yourself? . . . Why’d you do that? . . . Wasn’t very productive. Come on in. Did you bring your handkerchief? . . . oh you gotta have a hanky in hell. It’s hotter than . . . hell. You hafta wipe your leg . . . (producing very used hanky from deep in his pants) Here, you can use mine.

Faced with the daunting task of bridging the past with the present, with allusions being lost during four centuries, Mullen, in his down-to-earth way, described the process: “I took each item, each new hell-comer, and tried to take its essence and put it into a vernacular with the emphasis on the funny. Alex and I agreed that while the Macbeths cleaned the blood off and got into their PJs, Shake needed laughs at this point, and so he sent in the Clown.”

Rewriting Shakespeare is a risky business. Mullen, both writer and actor, addressed that issue, especially the struggle between irony and clarity for a contemporary audience. “I never sacrifice irony for clarity. I have [though], on rare occasions, sacrificed laughs for truth — hog-tied, kicking, screaming, gnashing of teeth.”

Playwright Mullen compared his contemporary rewrite of the hilarious Shakespeare speech of the drunken Porter right after the murder of the king with his much talked-about Ping Pong play, Chip and Gus: “In co-writing my play, I’d constantly step back and think, ‘It’s real enough, but it’s not funny. How can we make it funny?’ Same thing I applied to the Porter. I’d often ask myself, ‘to what effect?’ and the fun part, though sometimes torturous, is when ‘to what effect?’ becomes ‘to what laugh?’”

What would Shakespeare think?

An experienced Shakespearean actor, Mullen described Burns’s directing philosophy and practice: “Alex has an extraordinary passion for the text, a complete trust of his actors, and a desire to take audiences on an enthralling ride that approximates the thrill of the play that’s in his head.”

Talking about his own involvement, Mullen pointed out, “In Shakespeare, dialogue with an audience is integral to the whole experience. It’s not an incidental sharing.” He then confessed, “I love talking to an audience.” Mullen, the writer and actor, certainly did.

I’m sure Shakespeare would not have complained.

For Robert Zaller's review of the production, click here.

What, When, Where

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Alexander Burns. Through April 19, 2015 at the Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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