Sondheim, Shakespeare and sympathetic assassins

A few days ago I went to see Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical about the nine men and women who, successfully or unsuccessfully, attempted to kill a president of the United States. It’s a fascinating show for many reasons: its vignette-style format with very little narrative, the way it’s staged on the long and narrow floor of the Chocolate Factory and, of course, its challenging subject.

Coincidentally, this week I also saw Omnibus’ promenade production of Macbeth. Macbeth might not feature in Assassins, unlike that other famous Shakespeare assassin Brutus or Miller’s tragic Willy Lohman, but in terms of theme he certainly could’ve been there. Although, there is, of course, a poignant difference between Brutus and Macbeth: Macbeth does it for the power, Brutus does it to protect his country. Sondheim’s assassins meanwhile are all over the place in terms of motivation. At times it’s not even that clear what exactly their motivations are, which, in a way, makes sense: clearly, all of them fall somewhere on the scale from ‘a bit unstable’ to mentally ill. Macbeth too is somewhere in that spectrum, although in his case the power dynamics are very different. None of Sondheim’s assassins aspire to be the next president; they are not people in positions of power that are ‘close to the throne’, so to speak. Rather, they’ve somehow gotten it into their heads that killing the president will solve their problems.

This last bit is where, I think, the mental illness comes in, because rationally it’s very hard to explain how killing the president is going to make your stomach ache go away or get a famous actress to fall in love with you. But the process leading up that point is very clear: these are people who can’t cope with the pressures society and the political system put on them. It’s the American Dream that’s dangled in front of the faces of people who are never going to achieve the ideals it promotes. No matter how hard they work, they’re never going to be the next president; it simply doesn’t work that way. I won’t go as far as saying that this presentation makes the assassins relatable, but your heart has to be made of ice if you don’t feel some sympathy for them.

Seeing Assassins a few days before Macbeth had a lot of impact on the way I saw Shakespeare’s play. It gave it new meaning, despite the fact that this was the third time in four months I saw an adaptation of it. I’ve never quite known how to feel about Macbeth as a character. Shakespeare wrote people that are easy to love, people that you really ought to hate but can’t help but feel some empathy for and people that are just wildly ambivalent. But Macbeth always left me a bit indifferent, perhaps because I found his motivations difficult to relate to. This was the first time I could actually empathise with him, because I placed the character in the context that Assassins gave me. The two situations might not be exactly the same, but having Sondheim’s musical in the back of my head highlighted aspects of Shakespeare’s play that I never really focused on: the pressures of living in a competitive society, the need to prove yourself, the illogical leaps the mind sometimes makes when you’re trying to prove yourself right against your own better judgement. Instead of looking at all the things about Macbeth’s character I find so difficult to empathise with, this time I also saw aspects I can understand.

One of the joys of theatre is still being able to discover new things in shows you’ve already seen so many times. It was just surprising to find that, this time, the novelty didn’t come from a new setting, adaptation or interpretation, but from seeing a completely different show. It makes me wonder how many new sides to old favourites are waiting to be noticed.