From its first performance on August 7,1606, Shakespeare’s bloody masterpiece Macbeth has been considered accursed by actors. On that first opening night the young boy scheduled to play Lady Macbeth fell ill and died—and the Bard himself had to step into the role. At a more recent performance in London in 1934, the noted Shakespearean actor Malcolm Keen suddenly lost his voice—and his replacement was hospitalized after one night with severe chills. Three years later at the Old Vic, Laurence Olivier broke a sword onstage during his performance. It flew into the audience, striking a patron, who suffered a heart attack. With that grim history in mind, Peter O’Toole, 48, approached Macbeth at the Old Vic this month with an appropriate sense of risk. “I was born to play this role,” he explained. “I’ve been obsessed with it. I felt the jinx when I was 17 and failed in it at an audition. Macbeth is a brute. It is the famous brute.”
The reaction of London’s hypercritical reviewers to O’Toole’s performance did nothing to dispel that brutish reputation. They heaped abuse on him, caterwauling at a performance they dubbed “Macdeath” and “Macflop.” One called it “the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen on the London stage.” Specifically, they found his Macbeth campy, rowdy, overlarge. O’Toole was stung but not altogether surprised. “I told everyone in the cast to expect trouble,” he says. “This is full-blooded Shakespeare as it was written and first performed.” Railing against the “bloodless, boring” character of subsidized theater in England (including, by implication, the Royal Shakespeare Company), O’Toole recalls that in its day Shakespeare was played broadly to the crowd. “The theater mustn’t be treated as though it were a protected species,” he says. His conviction is supported at the box office; the remaining two weeks of his current run in London are sold out.
A five-time Oscar nominee, O’Toole has labored with distinction but relatively little notice in a dozen films since his last big triumph, The Lion in Winter (1968). While he was shooting that picture, his rowdy behavior nearly caused co-star Katharine Hepburn to walk off the set, and producer Joseph E. Levine tried to cut his salary because of “disgraceful conduct.” O’Toole claims to have quit drinking nine years ago, and, chastened by several stomach operations in the last six years (“tumors, possibly, but it’s all over now”), he lives quietly in a five-story London townhouse with daughters Kate, 20, and Pat, 17. Divorced last year from their mother, actress Sian Phillips, he sums up his romantic life as “the odd little thing here and there.” His latest, reportedly, is Trudie Styler, 26, who plays the First Witch in Macbeth. He has absolutely no thoughts of marriage. Says O’Toole, an Irish bookie’s son: “I’m good at picking fast women and slow horses.”
Next year he takes his Macbeth on a nine-week European tour. His latest film, The Stunt Man, has earned rave reviews in the U.S., and Masada—an eight-hour ABC miniseries in which he stars as a Roman general—is expected to air next spring. Whether such roles can restore O’Toole to his previous glory remains to be seen, but among his fellow actors in the play the question is beside the point. “He’s still trucking,” as his Lady Macbeth, Frances Tomelty, puts it. “Still alive, still laying himself open. It’s still all there.”