Spiritual Symbol Protects Lincoln Center Theater’s Macbeth From Legendary Curse

Special Features   Spiritual Symbol Protects Lincoln Center Theater’s Macbeth From Legendary Curse
While working on Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, set designer Scott Pask uncovered the secret in a 400-year-old mandala that may ward off the legendary curse which haunts Shakespeare's tragedy. 

Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke Photo by T. Charles Erickson

One of the most enduring stage superstitions is the belief that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is somehow cursed, and that even to speak the title aloud inside a theatre is to invite catastrophe.

However, the cast of the current Broadway revival of what is known as "the Scottish play" believes they may have found the antidote.

The centerpiece of the show’s artwork is a mandala, created by set designer Scott Pask, consisting of two circles, a pentagram and three heptagons, labeled with the name of God and his angels, according to a program note.

The production, which opened November 21, 2013, has been uncharacteristically trouble-free, according to veteran production stage manager Tripp Phillips.

Pask’s design is based on "The Seal of God’s Truth," created in 1582 by Dr. John Dee, a mathematician, astronomer and scholar who was a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and who claimed to have been instructed in its design through direct communication with angels. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Dee is believed to have been one of the inspirations for the wizard Prospero in The Tempest.

The mandala, which appears on the show's posters and Playbill cover, is also painted onto the Vivian Beaumont Theatre’s circular stage. The entire show is played on the mandala.

Cast members Stephanie Fieger and Shirine Babb, who are also serving as correspondents for the forthcoming 2014 "Playbill Broadway Yearbook," alerted Playbill to the fact that the mandala seems to be warding off most of the usual backstage glitches and gremlins that seem to bedevil many productions.

"The designer was known to communicate with angels and he created an image that has blessed the show and has given us the protection of the angels," Babb and Fieger wrote. "So now we never have to worry about the so-called Macbeth Curse! We can say the title all the time backstage and we don’t ever encounter any of those things people say."

They quoted director Jack O'Brien as telling the cast, "I don't believe in those things, but I don't not believe in those things."

Phillips said this is first production of Macbeth he has stage managed, but he had heard of the curse. He said the production, which stars Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff, has not been entirely without oddball incidents. During rehearsal at Lincoln Center in October, one of four dimmers on a light board began to dim a quarter of the rehearsal hall even though no one was near the controls.

"It was spooky and odd," Phillips said, "but it was a one-time thing. I'm sure it was just a power surge or something."

Also, during the run of the play, a banner that is held up by Velcro so it can be ripped down by actors detached itself in the middle of a scene and wafted down to the stage during the murder of Duncan. "There was no reason it should have done that, that we can ascertain," Phillips said.

Echoing director O'Brien, Phillips said, "I'm not a big superstitious person, but on the other hand there are so many traditions in the theatre, like not whistling in the dressing rooms, that we try to observe them. There's no point in tempting the Fates. I feel that this production has been a blessing. And if the mandala helps that, fantastic."

Despite the play's legends, it remains one of the most-produced Shakespeare works, having been performed on Broadway alone 18 times since the late 1920s.

There is still time for the curse to work its evil. The production is scheduled to run through January 12, 2014.

The cast standing on the mandala on Scott Pask's set.
The cast standing on the mandala on Scott Pask's set. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
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