Tag Archives: Macbeth

Mac Duff

MACBETH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th March, 2019

 

I have lost count of the number of productions of the Scottish Play I have seen over the years; I have yet to see one that gets everything absolutely right.  This touring version of the acclaimed National Theatre production doesn’t, I’m afraid, do it for me either.

Set ‘now’ but ‘after a civil war’, the action takes place in a dingy world of camouflage gear and the kind of clothing that gives the cast the appearance of an urban dance troupe that has fallen on hard times.  I’m all for diversity in casting, but I can do without Diversity as an aesthetic.  I half-expected Ashley Banquo to come on and flip Fleance over the heads of the group.  Said Fleance is gender-swapped and dressed like a young rapper.  Nuff said.

Rae Smith’s set includes a large ramp, like a broken footbridge, which is initially put to good use but is then side-lined in favour of plastic chairs and beat-up sofas.  There are also tall poles, like bedraggled palm trees, up and down which the Three Witches clamber and slide like post-apocalyptic circus performers – I could have done with more of this kind of thing, and a bit less of their booming, echoey voices, which go against their other ethereal qualities.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is all right to listen to, but we don’t get the impression of a great warrior gone bad – especially not when he’s being duct-taped into his armour.  Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth’s first appearance, in khaki vest, has the look of a military physical trainer, which she trades up for some garish gowns, at odds with the rest of the design.  Besterman brings intensity though and her sleepwalking scene is rather good.

Instead of crowns, the ruling monarch sports a blood-red suit, and so Duncan (Tom Mannion – effortless in his nobility) looks like a lounge singer.  When Macbeth later dons the trousers, it brings to mind the “I am in blood stepped in so far” line, which makes sense of Moritz Junge’s costume choice at last.

I can’t take to Joseph Brown’s Malcolm in the slightest but I do like Deka Walmsley’s bawdy Geordie Porter, Patrick Robinson’s Banquo, and above all Rachel Sanders’s Ross – these three seem to get the most out of the language, while coping with director Rufus Norris’s decisions, some of which make Shakespeare sound ironic: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (it doesn’t; it looks like half a portacabin) and “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (Banquo’s pate is as bald as a Malteser)…

There is some effectively dissonant original music by Orlando Gough, and Paul Arditti’s sound design adds to the eeriness – until it becomes intrusive – while Paul Pyant’s lighting is suitably dramatic.  But the action doesn’t grip me, the tragedy of a great man brought low by his ambition and supernatural interference doesn’t’ come across.

Ditch the camouflage get-up and the urban combat gear.  Let’s have a Game of Thrones version.  That would be relatable to the Youth too.

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Ramping up the action: the cast of Macbeth

 

 

 

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The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

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Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 


Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland.  The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds.  There is more to them than their doll-like exterior.  Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place.  It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent.  Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic.  Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?

I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters.  Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way.  Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.

These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.

Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words.  Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments.  She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible.  Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches.  But that’s just me.

Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up.  His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield.  The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint.  I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.

Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out.  Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone.  It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out!  Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us.  Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on.  Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.

Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt.  Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself.  I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.

Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.

Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip.  Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own.  The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.

A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them.  I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun…  I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.

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You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Bloody Funny

MACBETH

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 17th July, 2016

 

This latest version of the Scottish play by Oddsocks (their third, I believe) has a steampunk aesthetic, making for their best-looking production to date.  The costumes (by Vanessa Anderson and the company) are exquisite: platform boots, long coats and goggles are the order of the day, on a set of riveted steel, cogs, gears and tubes.  It’s a dystopian world of leadership challenges, and therefore ripe for topical comedy along with the trademark Oddsocks silliness and delivery of Shakespeare’s text without too many alterations.

Director Andy Barrow is a northern Macbeth, sounding like Ned Stark – the accent leads to new gags at Shakespeare’s expense.  Barrow is a generous performer and allows the rest of his cast of six to shine in their own way.  Rebecca Little’s Lady Macbeth is powerful and funny, a tiny tyrant with a nice line in vocals and melodramatic posturing – her sleepwalking scene is an utter joy: she plays it relatively straight against the backdrop of general silliness and the interpolation of a Tears For Fears classic number.  Gavin Harrison gives us a toffee-nosed King Duncan and a bungling murderer, while Ben Locke’s Macduff is a cocky, heroic Scot.  Anna Westlake’s Fleance is a bit of a scene-stealer, an emo kid with a dark side, and Oddsocks stalwart Joseph Maudsley gives us the daftest Banquo’s ghost I’ve seen.

The witches are gothic automatons, glitchy and eerie but it’s the scene in which they show Macbeth the apparitions that is when the steampunk theme comes to fruition, with puppet babies suspended in a vacuum tube.  This is Oddsocks creativity and inventiveness at its best.

As tragedies go, this one is relentlessly laugh-out-loud funny.  No detail is overlooked to wring as many laughs out of the audience as possible.  Visual gags supplement the verbal.  Slapstick and silliness underscore some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.  The violence is cartoony rather than horrific.  The whole thing is absolutely daft but in the cleverest way.  It’s knockabout stuff but it ticks along like clockwork.

Yet again, Andy Barrow delivers a marvel, an evening’s entertainment using an ancient text, even older theatrical traditions and conventions, and yet the result is something that feels absolutely fresh and new.

Oddsocks have been touring such high quality shows for 27 years.  If this latest gem is anything to go by, these punks are showing no signs of running out of steam.

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Riveting: Ben Locke and Andy Barrow cross swords as Macduff and Macbeth.


Hassle at the Castle

DUNSINANE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th September, 2013

 

David Grieg’s “sequel” to Macbeth begins with the English army pretending to be trees.  It’s an almost drama lesson kind of a moment and establishes the tone very rapidly.  These are soldiers abroad, bluff English lads with earthy humour and a job to do.

That job is to overthrow a tyrant and bring peace to the warring nation of Scotland.  There is contention about Malcolm’s claim to the throne.  It turns out that the tyrant’s wife’s death was misreported.  She appears, very much alive with news of a son and heir – from her first husband… This boy is in hiding and the people are getting behind him.

Grieg dispenses with iambic pentameter and gives us contemporary dialogue albeit in historical costume and an emblematic setting.  Parallels with the 21st century are obvious.  We think of Iraq and Afghanistan and now (since I first saw this production at the RSC) Syria, and the question of military intervention there.  Taking out the tyrant is all well and good but what next?

This is the problem facing Jonny Phillips as Siward, portrayed as a decent man trying to manage a difficult situation.  Phillips is every inch the commander, a Game of Thrones hero.  His adversary is Gruach, Macbeth’s widow – an excellent Siobhan Redmond, who seduces and beguiles, hinting at the dangerous woman she always was.

A strong ensemble includes Tom Gill as the boy soldier who serves as our narrator in his letters home to Mum, Joshua Jenkins as Eric the archer who seeks the more fleshly spoils of war, and Sandy Grierson as a less than ideal Malcolm, self-serving and arrogant.  I particularly liked Alex Mann’s Egham, who provides a lot of the humour as he tries to make an inventory for Scotland’s treasury.

Roxana Silbert, now artistic director of the REP, revives her production from the RSC, as a means of setting out her stall.  With this production she shows she can sustain our interest with some complex comings-and-goings, and create provocative dramatic action.  The play is very much from the soldiers’ point of view and we get the sense that Silbert understands these rather masculine attitudes – I was reminded of Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

That Lady Macbeth’s singing attendants are more than a little Middle Eastern in their dress over-emphasises the point.  We get the point and would get the point if they were in kilts or army blankets.

Beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a good-looking production that brings to the fore some knotty moral questions without necessarily offering answers.

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Photo: Simon Murphy


Signifying Nothing

MACBETH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 28th September, 2011

 

There are countless ways to speak the lines of Shakespeare.  Unfortunately a number of those are wrong.  This production was hampered by either the cast’s failure to understand what they were saying or the director’s inability to correct this or his misunderstanding of key speeches.   This gave rise to some unintentionally comic moments. For example when Old Siward learns the fate of his brave son, Young Siward, and hears of how bravely the boy fought and the nature of the wounds that killed him, he is actually examining, even manhandling, the body.  “He is dead then?” he asks.

 

At times this becomes ridiculous, at others annoying, and it’s a pity because the cast of seven players of the “Icarus Theatre Collective” work hard to keep the thing going.  Of course they were doubling up characters like billy-o and some of the double casting worked better than others.  The gangling Banquo was more effective as the doctor.  Lady Macbeth was not a very good Murderer.  Best of the bunch was Duncan, (Zachary  Holton – clearly the most experienced actor in the troupe), who spoke his lines as though he were living them and not just reciting (mis-reciting) them.   Perhaps I’m being too harsh.   The cast spoke with good diction and emoted with varying degrees of success, but they weren’t feeling it and so neither was I.

 

The fight scenes were energetic, with swords and bucklers, spears and axes – this production was Scottish Medieval in design – apart from the set which was largely an assortment of vertical planks like an American city skyline, and a huge swatch of red fabric that swept diagonally across stage left as in a Baroque painting.  A full moon hung over the proceedings.  On this, images were projected: a raven, an increasing amount of blood… but the moon also served as a more literal marker for the location of scenes.  When Macduff visits Malcolm in England, the lunar surface is decorated with the cross of Saint George.

 

The production has one or two good ideas but most seem to clutter the action.  There is some symbolism with a peacock’s feather I am still puzzling through.

 

The performance I attended began at 10.30 am. Also present were coach-loads of schoolchildren who for the most part were well-behaved if a little bemused and bored.  I don’t know if they went away with the play clarified or obfuscated by the earnest if misguided production.   What could have been a straightforward, no frills presentation was hobbled by the director’s misconceptions.


Spit happens.

MACBETH
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday 18th July, 2011

The set for this production – one of the first to be staged in the revamped and rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre – is basically the interior of a ruined church. Smashed stained glass windows and beheaded statues stand as sentinels for the action on the dark parquet flooring below. A pile of rubble, broken chairs and statues clutters the upstage area. This is, of course, in keeping with the desecration theme of the play: when Duncan’s murdered body is found, he is likened to a ransacked temple, the incarnation of the natural, and holy, order. Someone has ‘stole thence the life o’ th’ building’.
The regicide causes great perturbation in nature. The unnatural (and God-given) order has been defiled. Even the horses are eating each other. The evil must be purged so that order – symbolised by brand spanking new stained glass windows – can be restored.

The production has many nifty ideas. The witches have been swapped for a trio of undead children, whose entrance to the play is one of the most chilling I have ever seen. The famous opening scene is dispensed with. Instead, a concussed Malcolm becomes the ‘bloody man’ who acts as war correspondent, and is prompted to begin speaking by Ross, in priestly garb. This device closes the play, with Ross again prompting new king Malcolm to deliver the final speech. In this way, Ross can be seen to operate as a counterpart for Seyton (who is also given the Porter’s gates of hell speech). Seyton, in dark red leather, oversees the action but only after the first murder has been committed. By killing the king, Macbeth has unleashed Evil upon the world – well, upon Scotland, at least.
The slaughter of Lady Macduff and her ‘pretty chickens’ is truly horrific. She has to watch as one child is stabbed, another has his neck broken – the girl is led off hand in hand with her assailant for some unseen, unspeakable atrocity.
Once dead, characters are ushered through a door upstage centre by Seyton himself. This is not the primrose way! But it is a good method of clearing the stage of corpses.
Rather than witches, it is ghosts who loom large, influencing the action. Macduff followed around by his dead wife and kids is particularly effective. Dolls figure heavily, representing childhood and also puppetry, in a Voodoo kind of way. Macbeth, scorning the predictions, seizes one of the dollies and repeatedly thwacks its face off the floor, echoing his wife’s earlier claim to “dash a child’s brains out.” This, and some other bits of business, gave rise to laughter from the audience. Jonathan Slinger’s worthy Thane brings to light some of the black humour of the later scenes but I’m not confident all the laughs were earned intentionally.
What irked me and alienated me from the central performance was his propensity for emitting great sprays of saliva with every other word. I know proper voice projection inevitably creates this side effect but Mr Slinger seems to me a veritable fountain of a man. I recall with a shudder getting drenched at his Richard III, when I was on the second row. All of this kept me at a dry distance from his performance – a pity when so many of the supporting players were so strong.

Ah well, spit happens.