Heston’s Macbeth’ painting goes on display
A celebrated 1953 open-air Bermuda production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth staged at Fort St Catherine was full of sound and fury — and, at one point, real fires which raced across the battlements of the East End bastion.
Future Academy Award winner Charlton Heston played the title role in the epic Bermuda staging of Macbeth. A talented amateur painter, the actor immortalised the fiery closing scene of the local production in a vivid canvas recently acquired by the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art and now hanging at its Botanical Gardens gallery.
“April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 1616,” said Masterworks curator Elise Outerbridge. “We had been approached by one of our directors, Conchita Ming, to see if we were interested in participating in a worldwide host of activities commemorating the event.”
A playwright, poet and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist, Shakespeare was born in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.
Known works, including collaborations, consist of some 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and assorted verses. His plays have been translated into every major language and are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before.
The prediction of his great contemporary, English poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time” has long-since been fulfilled.
“Obviously there’s a strong Bermuda connection to the Bard given his fantastical 1611 romance The Tempest was inspired, in part, by the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture on the Island,” said Mrs Outerbridge.
“And so we hung a series of etchings at the museum by Bermudian artist Betsy Mulderig illustrating scenes from that play.
“But then by sheer coincidence, or perhaps because of a touch of the predestination which informs the plot of Macbeth, Masterworks founder and creative director Tom Butterfield was going through a catalogue of an upcoming sale by auctioneers Bonham’s. And he came across Charlton Heston’s painting of the famous Bermuda Macbeth production being offered for sale.”
The Masterworks curator said the timing of the March auction could not have been more fortuitous: “We decided the painting would make a perfect addition to our collection — as well as the perfect Bermuda salute to William Shakespeare as the world celebrates his legacy and continuing relevance. So Masterworks successfully bid on it.”
The 11½in by 15½in oil painting, signed “C. Heston”, depicts the fiery climax of the Bermuda production.
A note Mr Heston attached to the back of the painting explains how the play was staged on the battlements of the centuries-old seaside fort, with wind fanning actual flames behind sword-wielding combatants as Scottish warlord Macbeth is toppled from the throne he has usurped by an army of opponents in the final scene.
Mr Heston’s note concludes, “It was arguably the most effective Macbeth combat ever staged.”
On the cusp of international stardom when he worked in Bermuda in the early 1950s, Illinois-born Mr Heston (1923-2008) soon went on to establish himself as one of Hollywood’s most popular and enduring leading men.
He specialised in larger-than-life characters and starred in such blockbusters as Ben Hur, for which he won his Academy Award, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, 55 Days At Peking, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Khartoum, Planet of The Apes and The Three Musketeers.
A classically trained actor, Mr Heston once said “the great roles are always Shakespearean” and he made his Broadway debut in the playwright’s Antony and Cleopatra.
In addition to his stage performance as Marc Antony in 1947, Mr Heston portrayed the Roman politician again in film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1950 and 1970 and again, in different form, in a movie version of Antony and Cleopatra in 1972 which he also directed.
He also took the part of the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet. But Macbeth was a favourite role for Mr Heston.
Mr Heston played the part numerous times on stage both before and after his Bermuda appearance, including a well-received 1975 California production in which he appeared alongside Vanessa Redgrave.
The March 22 Los Angeles auction of items from his estate included, aside from the Bermuda Macbeth painting, a valuable collection of early published editions of Shakespeare’s plays and other rare Shakespearean items.
The Bermuda production of Macbeth was staged under what Mr Heston called “the highly imaginative direction” of Burgess Meredith.
An accomplished and versatile stage and Hollywood stalwart probably best remembered today for his Oscar-nominated turn playing boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill in actor-writer Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Rocky and its first two sequels, Mr Meredith selected Fort St Catherine as the appropriately ominous and haunting setting for the play.
Believed to have been written between 1599 and 1606, Macbeth tells the supernaturally-tinged tale of an ambitious Scottish nobleman who seizes the throne with the aid of his scheming wife and a trio of witches.
“The place was packed,” recalled former Bermuda Cultural Affairs officer Ruth Thomas, who attended the 1953 performance as a young woman. “They had chairs near the beach. It was magical, because they had the fort lit.
“To see the witches coming out of who knows where was fabulous. Macbeth stood at the top of the fort. It was powerful.”
However, the internationally acclaimed local production also added to Macbeth’s longstanding reputation as an unlucky play for actors.
According to theatrical superstition, Macbeth is said to be cursed and actors avoid saying its name when in the theatre — the euphemism “The Scottish Play” is used instead.
The “Scottish Curse” — blamed for various injuries and mishaps which have occurred during productions of the play for almost 400 years — even struck down Mr Heston.
At one point during the play’s run he had to rush offstage with burns to his groin area and change costumes between scenes. Someone had laundered his tights with kerosene and this apparently interacted with the hot sweat of a horse he rode across the battlements of Fort St Catherine during one scene, causing him intense pain.
And in his diaries Mr Heston also recalled being “run over by a motorcycle” on the opening day of the Bermuda production.
To make matters worse, when a wooden facade was set on fire for the play’s climactic battle scene, the wind shifted blowing smoke and flames towards the audience. Fortunately, no one was injured.
These accidents notwithstanding, Mr Heston happily returned to Bermuda in 1954 to appear in a local production of the comedy Born Yesterday alongside its original Broadway stars, Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas.
He said that the worst thing to happen to him on his return visit was getting sunburned on a South Shore beach when he was posing for publicity photographs with his co-stars.
Mr Heston also maintained a once-removed link with the island for many years through his close friendship with Bermudian actress, Diana Douglas, and her second husband, American producer and writer William Darrid, who he had once shared an apartment with in New York when they were both embarking on theatrical careers.
Ms Douglas, the one-time wife of granite-jawed Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas and mother of two-time Oscar winner and sometime Bermuda resident Michael Douglas, died last year at the age of 92.
Mr Heston said of the Bermudian actress’ bestselling 1999 memoir In The Wings: “Diana Douglas Darrid has had a rich, full life as actress, wife and mother of Hollywood superstars, which she’s recorded with wit and wry insight into the intimacies and challenges of showbusiness. She’s an excellent writer.”
And he read Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Wood on a Snowy Evening at the memorial service for Mr Darrid held at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills following that part-time Bermuda resident’s death in 1992.
Following the service he fondly reminisced with Bermudian family members and friends in attendance about his visits to the island.
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