This photograph shows actor Amvrosi Buchma playing the role of the Fool/Porter in a Ukranian production of Macbeth directed in 1924 by Les Kurbas. Kurbas was a leading figure of the ‘Executed Renaissance’ – the writers and artists of 1920s and 30s Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic who were executed or repressed by Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime. The modernist production was aesthetically and politically controversial, causing scandal in its radical questioning of theatrical methods and in its use of the violent and amoral world of the play to hold a mirror up to contemporary Soviet Ukraine.

The role of the Porter

The Porter Scene is a complex one with a history of varied interpretation both on and off stage. Some see (or perform) it as being a genuinely funny moment of light relief (complete with knock-knock joke) from an otherwise claustrophobically bleak play, while others see its humour as deliberately inadequate or grimly ironic, serving only to emphasize Macbeth’s mood of despair. Scholars have highlighted the scene’s topical references to the trial of Henry Garnet (the Jesuit equivocator), as well as its parody of a scene from the medieval Towneley Cycle (a series of biblical dramas or ‘mystery plays’) known as ‘the Harrowing of Hell’, in which Christ demands entrance at the gates of hell and is kept waiting by the Porter, Rybald, who takes his orders from Belzabub. The dark humour of the scene has also been linked to the comic but devilish ‘vice’ figures in medieval morality plays.

In Kurbas’s production, the naming of the Porter as the ‘Fool’ and Buchma’s motley costume made explicit links to the Vice character of medieval drama. Buchma also made satirical quips on contemporary political and social issues, such as the League of Nations and the deposition of the Tsar, in a modern analogue of Shakespeare’s references to Jesuit equivocation. Other productions have also updated the satire of this scene, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth of 1999, directed by Gregory Doran, in which the Porter (Stephen Noonan) gave his equivocation speeches in the manner of Tony Blair.