We may never know what inspires some artists to paint. But for Charlton Heston, his stint as the titular character in the production of Macbeth staged at Fort St Catherine in 1953 inspired him to paint the explosive scene at the end of the play.
Heston’s painting now hangs amongst works by some of the most prolific painters of Bermuda at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, and while not displayed for its artistic greatness, it is a connection that gives us a glimpse into the island’s allure.
The play was staged in the early ’50s when many were discovering the island and its European charm after the Second World War. While Charlton Heston was making a name for himself in Hollywood, his star brought a magical quality to the production, and despite superstitions surrounding Macbeth (of which some also plagued the Bermuda production), many remember it as a fantastic example of the quality productions staged during those years.
Brothers Paul and John Leseur were teenagers at the time and were often brought in as extras and stagehands on the productions at the Bermudiana Hotel Theatre, which featured many American stars including Christopher Plummer, Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas. It was through their time as a “cadre of fun young teenagers” at the Friday Night Club that they found themselves in the limelight on the ramparts of Fort St Catherine.
“I didn’t know that John was second murderer until I looked at the programme again,” Paul says, recalling his teenage years. “I was just a soldier.”
But John remembers it a little differently: “I did both, but we rehearsed it for a week, and I knew my lines, and I still know them today, and then at the dress rehearsal this big monster of a man [Heston] was standing in front of me, and I just froze up and forgot my lines.” John was replaced, but with the programmes already printed, he lives on as the second murderer.
The actors all remember “Chuck,” as he was affectionately called on set throughout the week’s performance, as personable.
During the researching of the story, this writer discovered a family connection—a cousin and two aunts—who were also cast in the play. Derek Oatway, who was 14 at the time, was cast as Fleance.
“When Chuck climbed into the saddle of his horse, aside from feeling sorry for the animal, it was impressive,” says Derek. “He had presence, in spades! He was one big dude. His booming voice commanded your attention, and you knew right away this guy was destined for big things.”
Along with his part as a soldier, Paul also worked closely with Heston as his personal dresser. Paul recalls running around the magazine of the fort “and popping up where he [Heston] would change his costume and re-appear at the little side of the fort.”
“I got to know him very well, and his wife Lydia,” says Paul. “At the end of the play, he called me up to his suite at the Bermudiana Hotel and presented me with a lovely little box with a money clip inside and thanked me for all I’d done. I’ve had it all these years—it’s amazing I haven’t lost it.”
The money clip is inscribed with the words “To Paul from Chuck, Macbeth 1953.”
Whether Heston painted or sketched out on the set the final scene marking the dramatic ending of the play when part of the set caught fire, immortalised in his painting, is unknown. However, on the back of the painting, Heston wrote that he hoped the Bermuda production would be one of the best to go down in Macbeth history. Heston would go on to play Shakespeare’s interpretation of the King of Scotland numerous times throughout his career.
“This is a highlight, where now we can unite Shakespeare, Charlton Heston and Fort St Catherine and those famous six degrees of separation through this one painting,” says Tom Butterfield, founder and creative director at Masterworks. “What we’re starting to realise is that we have an anthropology of the business of tourism through the arts and letters and writings. It’s taking a shape that’s fascinating.”