Playing I, Banquo

Actor Michael Patrick on inhabiting one of Shakespeare's more intriguing lesser characters in a new production of the Tim Crouch monologue

Who is Banquo? For a character that is so well known in the story of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, he doesn't have as much to do in the original text of the play as you might think. Just 101 lines, in total.

Compare that to Macbeth’s 690 lines, or even Ross’ 137. Ross is a Scottish Nobleman in the story, who mostly acts as a glorified messenger. In many versions of the play, his character might be merged with Lennox, another nobleman, or may even be cut completely. Yet he has more to say for himself than Banquo, a pivotal character. 

Banquo is there when the witches visit Macbeth for the first time. His murder and subsequent reappearance as a ghost provide much of the conflict in the play, but Shakespeare doesn't give us that much information about him, about his motives or desires.

I think that is the great thing about the character of Banquo, and indeed all of Macbeth: so much of it is open to interpretation. It must be why it remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

There is no doubt in most people’s minds that Aaron from Titus Andronicus is evil: 'Even now I curse the day wherein I did not some notorious ill as kill a man, or else devise his death.' Don John from Much Ado About Nothing is similarly unambiguous: 'It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.' Macbeth, however... Is he truly that evil? Or is it the witches’ influence that forces his hand? Or his wife’s? You can play him so many ways, as you can with Banquo. 

Who is Banquo? What is he like? Is he meant as a counterpoint to Macbeth? Should he be portrayed as a good and honest soldier next to the scheming social climber? Or is he meant to show what Macbeth could have been he had failed to fall under the influence of so many scheming characters: just a normal soldier?

Banquo is not great, maybe slightly tarnished, but certainly not evil. Or maybe he is evil, secretly plotting some plans of his own off stage, unseen to the audience. Perhaps Macbeth is right when he says, 'Our fears in Banquo stick deep... There’s none but him whose being I do fear.'

Ultimately, you can play Banquo evil, good, neutral, ambiguous and it still make sense. No matter how innocent you try and portray Macbeth, at the end of the day, he still murders a king. The fact that we know so little about Banquo allows actors and audience to delve into the character and develop our own motivations and driving forces for him.

I, Banquo is play is written from the perspective of Banquo’s ghost – he talks directly to the audience, recounting the story of Macbeth. I cannot wait to inhabit the character at the Lyric Theatre later this month.

I think the appeal of the play is twofold. Firstly, it works through the story of Macbeth in an understandable fashion. Banquo’s ghost slowly goes through what happened in modern English; there is no need to have a Wikipedia synopsis beside you. By the end of the play, the story is clear. It’s an excellently written exercise in storytelling by Tim Crouch.

On another level, the play explores the psyche of the character of Banquo and his relationship with Macbeth. A recurring theme of the play is Banquo asking himself what he would have done in Macbeth’s position. If the witches spoke to him first and not Macbeth, what would he have done differently? Would he have been strong enough to resist temptation, to resist evil? Or would he have given in?

That is what I’ve been really excited about while rehearsing the play. You get to see Banquo, who has very little to say for himself in the actual script, really open up to the audience in a way that is not possible in a traditional telling of the story. Hopefully, by the end of the play, the audience will feel like they know the story of Macbeth, and, more importantly, the character of Banquo, just that little bit better.

I, Banquo runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from April 16-17, a Pan Narrans Theatre Company production.