All 14 entries tagged Macbeth
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November 27, 2011
Just a quick note, for completeness' sake, to say that I made it to the Nottingham New Theatre's production of Macbeth last week. I don't review shows that feature students who I do or will teach, but great to see the country's only completely student-run theatre in action, and an interesting idea to set it in an office environment. I'm only disappointed that Birnam Wood didn't turn out to be a tent city of student protesters.....
June 28, 2011
It's amusing to note that, while the Royal Shakespeare Company first produced David Greig's Dunsinane in 2010, it only played in London; and it's only in the National Theatre of Scotland's staging of the RSC production that the play has finally come to Stratford-upon-Avon, after an outing at Edinburgh's Lyceum. It's less amusing to report that, thanks to a coach company failing to arrive on time, my group - the attendees of a conference at Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning - missed the first ten minutes or so of the production, which sadly won't be reported here. However, I hear they were extremely funny, focussing on the Birnam Wood campaign against Dunsinane.
This was, on one level, a sequel to Macbeth. Siward (Jonny Phillips), leader of the occupying army after Macbeth's overthrow, worked alongside Macduff (Phil McKee) and his self-serving lieutenant Egham (Alex Mann) to consolidate the rule of the corrupt, lecherous and obnoxious Malcolm (Brian Ferguson). The already unstable situation was complicated by the re-emergence of Lady Macbeth, here called by her first name Gruach (Siobhan Redmond), whose son by her previous husband was soon being declared the rightful King of Scotland. The play followed Siward as he fell in love with Gruach, attempted to negotiate peace among the lords and find his own sense of honour and safety; while Egham began negotiating black-market deals and their soldiers dealt with the locals.
The what-if surface story of the play, influenced obviously by Richard III and King John, acted as an obvious allegory for the war in Iraq, with the main dialogue focussed on the problems of attempting to enforce peace. The best scenes were dialogues between Malcolm and Siward where the opposing philosophies of England and Scotland were put forward. The honourable and absolutist Siward insisted on the need for clarity, the destruction of obstacles, the definition of allegiances and lineages. Malcolm, however, explained the ambiguities, complexities and impermanencies of Scottish culture. While Malcolm initially began as a figure of fun - and Ferguson relished the seedier aspects of the character's vices - his voice became stronger as the play went on. What sounded like ludicrously perverted notions of truth and fact in the immediate aftermath of the war became attention to subtleties and politics, and the verdict was damning - an occupying army that does not attempt to understand the culture of the people it is "helping" cannot offer a solution. A "solution" itself is not even necessarily desirable.
Thus, Malcolm's effete and weak king became the play's figurehead, a voice of honest corruption that accepted the realities of process. Phillips's Siward, by contrast, became less admirable as his attempts to do good and forge compromise were undone by individual needs. His self-sacrifice was noble in itself, as when he proposed marriage between Gruach and Malcolm rather than taking the Queen for himself, but his attempts to impose solution were undone by the solution's conflicting implications for different parties, and the first half closed with Gruach's men using the wedding as cover for a mass slaughter.
These clashes of culture were played out in miniature on the ground. A touching subplot saw Joshua Jenkins's comic Welsh soldier attempting to attract the attention of a "Hen Girl" (Lisa Hogg), who spoke only Gaelic. Several aborted attempts later, he finally embraced the girl in front of his cheering fellows, only to be stabbed brutally in the stomach, before she stabbed herself in turn, screaming defiance at the shocked generals. This "suicide bomber" was perhaps the clearest bit of the allegory, but drew its strength from the realisation that, of the two human faces we had been watching, we had only ever really known one.
Mann's Egham was particularly strong, with cut-glass English accent and an honest acceptance of his corruption that was balanced by his passionate hatred for all things Scottish. His admission of dishonesty to Gruach was a comic highlight, but the ongoing complexities of the situation were pinned up by his outrage at Siward's decision to burn a group of Scots alive in a bid to root out Gruach's son. The corruption of Egham and Malcolm was, in many ways, more acceptable than Siward's inflexible military integrity. This was pointed up, too, by two visiting Thanes who critiqued Siward's refusal to enter into a culture of gift exchange. In response to Siward's claim that all he wanted was peace, the two men pointed out that peace was the one thing that Siward's presence denied their ability to give.
There were mis-steps throughout the play. In particular, I wished it had ended with Malcolm's quiet instruction to Siward to bed in for the winter (a lovely reflection of the earlier comment by Siward that the army may be staying longer than they had originally planned, and a direct gibe at current Western foreign operations). Instead, a long conclusion saw Siward go to seek out Gruach after having killed her son, only to discover that she had a grandson also, who he failed to kill. This added little to either story or allegory. It did, however, allow Tom Gill's excellent Boy Soldier another monologue. This choric character summed up the action in imagined letters written to his mother, explaining the horrors of Scotland but, eventually, its beauties also. Frequently on hand to help his seniors, this boy was the perennial innocent of war, always attempting to find sense in the slaughter. Gruach was also accompanied by two choric characters, maids who sang in Gaelic and wore headscarves that evoked the Arabic aspects of the story.
It's wonderful to see new writing back in the Swan, and the production offered a fascinating complement to the main house's Macbeth that both reclaimed the historical matter for Scotland and acted as a damning indictment of Western foreign policy. Grieg's pacy and intelligent script was performed superbly by the cast, and one hopes that this play - which remains far too relevant - continues to have life beyond the current production.
April 29, 2011
The first new production in the re-opened and redesigned RST is also the opening salvo of the RSC's fiftieth birthday celebration season. Artistic Director Michael Boyd christens the new space with a production very much in keeping with his principles - no celebrity names but a lead actor, Jonathan Slinger, who made his name coming up through the RSC ensemble; and a major tragedy pitched at the widest possible audience, schools-friendly without being sanitised or simplified.
Tom Piper's set was stunning. This Macbeth was set in a desecrated church, and costume placed us squarely within the English Reformation. Shattered stained-glass windows stretched towards the eaves; piles of rubble and holes in stone walls spoke of violent destruction; and wooden panelling was painted with Catholic icons whose heads had been scratched out. The symbolic significance of this scene of destroyed religion was emphasised by the changes in the second set to a more puritanical church - the windows were shuttered over, the panelling was bare, the statues removed. As the world turned, so too were the representations of religion destroyed and then covered over, subject to implied external forces rather than governing actions. Yet the church continued to exert a powerful force over the players, drawing them into its rituals and symbols in an inescapable way.
The living representative of these changes was Scott Handy's unusually prominent Ross, priest to the regime. The play omitted the opening heath scene, instead beginning with three female cellists entering to a gallery and playing a low drone deliberately reminiscent of bagpipes. Then Howard Charles's Malcolm entered, taking the role of the bloody soldier, and stood mute and aghast. From a balcony, the black-robed Ross spoke "Doubtful it stood." Malcolm stood silent, and Ross repeated himself twice, then made as if to continue with the lines; at which point Malcolm jerked to life and delivered his war report to the assembled nobles. The message was obscure at this point, but the scene was repeated for Malcolm's concluding speech, as the embittered and weary Ross, again on a balcony, repeated three times "We shall not spend..." before Malcolm finally pulled himself together to speak.
The significance was in Ross's transformation throughout the play. Handy's elegant and conscientous minister was present for all the key action, and increasingly dissociated from the living characters to become an almost choric link between this world and the next. The Old Man was removed from their two scenes, allowing Ross to address the audience in soliloquy over his fears. Macbeth's coronation was staged spectacularly, with Ross singing Pie Jesu and presiding as baptismal water poured from the ceiling and the Macbeths washed themselves ceremonially. On entering the home of the Macduffs, it was made clear that Ross knew the family well, and his closeness to the family was tinged with terror for their safety. In another soliloquy scene he cast his Catholic vestments against a wall, abjuring religion as his country fell apart, and his report to Malcolm and Macduff was grief-stricken. Later, he appeared marching with the ghosts of Banquo and Macduff's family, stony-faced and resolute. In the person of Ross, religion was breaking down in the face of grief and onslaught, and had lost faith in itself - by this time, Ross was in military garb. As Macbeth and Macduff fought, Ross passed silently through along with Lady Macduff, aligning him closely with the dead and transcendent as much as with the living. It was in this key that he fed Malcolm his closing lines, falling into a liminal spiritual space where the dead ventiloquised the living, casting Malcolm as the puppet of higher orders.
The presence of the dead, as is typical for Boyd, pervaded the production. On a comic note, Jamie Beamish's Seyton (who took the Porter's part) came in as an Irish suicide bomber with a belt of dynamite sticks under his cloak. I say comic as the audience responded appreciatively; but this seemed a crass and horrifically insensitive trivialisation of this stereotype in light of recent events in Belfast. Beamish lit dynamite sticks and put them down in front of members of the audience identified as equivocators, causing the audience to squirm as the fuses burned down. To Seyton's disappointment, they fizzled out; but he picked the sticks up and threw them behind a pile of rubble, where they exploded spectacularly. To the shrieking audience, he wagged a finger and reminded us "Never return to a firework once it's lit". The historical relevance to the Gunpowder Plot was, of course, not missed. Clad in red, in an intertextual reference to the Keeper of Boyd's Henry VI trilogy, this Porter became the keeper of Hell's gate, opening a door upstage to admit the reanimated corpses of Banquo and the Macduffs after their slaughters, and Macbeth at the play's conclusion.
The Witches were three children (two boys, one girl), who first appeared dangling from meathooks high above the stage. Tattered and with crosses daubed on their heads, they were clearly living corpses, alternately giggling and delivering cold prophecies. Later, it was revealed that the witches were in fact Macduff's children, who appeared hale and healthy with their mother playing with the same dolls that had recently acted as the embodied demons of Macbeth's second consultation (which concluded with the hideous image of hundreds of toy mannekins of Banquo descending from the ceiling). Macbeth's black-cloaked murderers entered and broke the neck of one boy, slit the throat of the other and suffocated the mother; then, even more creepily, led the young girl offstage in silence. She only reappeared as the Porter summoned the bodies of the dead, entering by herself and quietly following the Porter into the gates of hell. Where other productions have done something similar by showing the witches as victims of war in interpolated prologues, it was cleverly anti-linear to have the corpse-like children prefigure Macbeth's crime against them. The mother and children proceeded to stalk the stage, following Macduff during the final battles and accompanying Ross in cutting down branches of Birnam Forest.
Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was another strong visual presence, if not one of the better verse-speakers. Dread-locked and towering over the rest of the cast, he posed a significant threat to Macbeth and was ambitious in his own right, at one point giving Fleance a sword and mace and stepping back to see what his son would look like as a monarch. During the coronation a beautiful visual image was set up in the descrated church, with High Church ceremony and white robes on the ground level presided over by Ross while Banquo, the weird children, the Porter and the cellists gathered around the smashed stained glass windows on the upper level; Banquo already with one foot in the demonic world. His murder was effectively staged, with the murderers (Seyton was the third, though merely stood with a lamp) greeting Banquo as if a welcoming committee. They shook his hand and stabbed him; but he retained life long enough to hold them back as he screamed to Fleance to flee. Banquo's body was left on the stage and revived by Seyton. Later, during the banquet scene (played without a table as a drinks reception), the Ghost smashed through a door, a piece of which Macbeth picked up and wielded as a weapon against his persecutor; then, in his second appearance, he entered with a knife and bloodily murdered Macbeth, stabbing him in the back and slashing his throat. The interval fell on this gruesome and frankly unnecessary scene; which was then replayed at the start of the second half without the Ghost, allowing us to see what the assembled courtiers saw and appreciate his apparent madness. This device, famously used in Rupert Goold's recent production with Patrick Stewart, was here effective and allowed Slinger the chance to play up the comedy of the moment as he sat nonchalantly on the floor once his fit was passed and gazed up at his servants.
While the creative decisions made thus had some interest, the production was let down by generally weak or unmemorable performances. There were a few key exceptions - Scott Handy and Caroline Martin brought emotional edges to Ross and Lady Macduff in life, and a terrifying intensity to their roles in the final vengeance, that allowed us to invest in these relatively minor characters; and Nikesh Patel (an old Warwick student incidentally, great to see him on the main stage!) was a genuinely interesting Donalbain, tenderly seeing to his older brother in the opening scene, providing loud support for his father and offering a dynamic counterpoint to the more passive Malcolm, realised in a final battle against Macbeth that saw him dispatched hideously for his proactive stance. Howard Charles excelled as Malcolm during the England scene, bringing a melodrama to his performance of evil that rendered him truly fearsome in the face of Macduff; and the children worked hard in substantial roles.
It was in the lead roles that the production suffered. Slinger, one of my favourite actors, was a decent but uninteresting Macbeth, who most came alive in scenes of humour such as the banquet or his address to the cream-faced loon. He was strongest when standing atop a ladder that emerged from under the stage, calling for his armour as the English troops gathered below him. His habit of changing the pitch of his voice (high and colloquial for conversation, switching suddenly to deep for ominous moments or serious pronouncements) felt too self-consciously artificial, and the focus throughout on the visual rather subordinated the role amid the ghosts and spectacle, which Slinger was unable to rise above. A general through-line was discernable, however, with Macbeth beginning with barely-concealed ambition (his awkward bows to Malcolm and Duncan were particularly telling) and gradually distancing himself from his wife. In a production with so much pre-determination, however, Macbeth ultimately felt incidental.
More disappointing was Aislin McGuckin's Lady Macbeth, a controlled and intellectually ambitious woman who brooked no weakness from Macbeth and was increasingly left in the cold by him. While there was nothing wrong with this reading, it felt out of keeping with the rest of the production, and her delivery of lines was rote and flat. She was most interesting during the banquet, attempting to play the formal hostess and desperately laughing away Macbeth's actions. The sleepwalking scene passed almost unremarked as she scrubbed her hands in a bowl, shrieked a little and eventually saw herself offstage. Crucially, in a production haunted by the dead, she did not reappear after her death. Aidan Kelly's Macduff and Des McAleer's Duncan, meanwhile, were nothing more than functional.
This wasn't a poor production, then, but an oddly flat one that took far more interest in clever links and visual style than in text or character. The good work in the minor characters was offset by run-of-the-mill leads, and the play itself became a vehicle for directorial style. There were moments of great work - I had never before, for example, felt the power of the description of Edward the Confessor during the England scene, which resounded wonderfully with the religious setting - but these were too few and far between. What will remain are the images, including the glorious picture at the end as Lady Macduff and her children ascended to the gallery and opened the shutters, revealing the sun shining through perfectly restored stained glass windows, a moment of hope at the end of a bleak play.
A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.
November 19, 2010
Writing about web page http://macbeth-thepoint.co.uk/
Last night’s production was informed, for this reviewer, by mimetic associations and intertextuality that bordered, at times, on déjà vu. It was the second Polish take on Macbeth I’ve seen in the last couple of years. It was also the second Macbeth I’ve seen this year at the Barbican, both times sitting centrally in the front row of one of their black box spaces. The likeness was only bolstered by the superficial similarity to Cheek by Jowl’s production: isolated, stark spotlights; a set of movable boxes; a deconstructed text; actors primarily delivering text to the audience instead of each other; a highly symbolic physical style. And finally, of course, I’d seen this ensemble before, back when Macbeth was just a work-in-progress during the RSC’s Complete Works Festival.
The déjà vu, however, manifested as a sensation of familiarity rather than repetition. The elements of recognition were in some ways organic to the production, built around a tightly-knit ensemble who built music and movement as a group. In an early sequence, the seven cast members knelt in a semicircle, with Anu Salonen’s Witch in the centre, and looking at each other they began singing the Sisters’ lines, their voices rising in exquisite harmony as they chanted. Their hands gestured to one another in actions of joining and giving, the group self-conducting. It was a strategy – honest and powerful – that perfectly encapsulated the ensemble ethos which made this Macbeth so much warmer and more emotionally impacting than Cheek by Jowl’s similarly impressive but cold interpretation. Although the individual performances were subsumed to the group enterprise more completely than in other so-called ensemble productions, these were still deeply human performances, exemplified in Gabriel Gawin's Macbeth, a bewildered and tormented hero who gazed pleadingly into the audience, looking for salvation from the chaotic mess he found himself in. As he spun around blindfolded, listening to the visions of the witches, one saw a man battling to maintain an identity in the face of greater forces.
The music was key, and unfortunately there’s no way to adequately describe it in words. Among Song of the Goat’s research interests are chanting (the company are based in a 14th century monastery in Wroclaw) and the music of lost/vanishing cultures. Rafal Habel’s underscore on the kayagum (a Korean string instrument, and I’m relying entirely on the programme for the details) provided a base melody throughout, while the multilayered vocal work of the cast drew from Corsican traditions. The effect was a sonic collision of Eastern spiritualism with a deeply religious European tradition. Salonen’s breathtaking, wordless vocal soarings were tinged with a hint of desperation, a music from another plane aching to be understood, which itself rendered the Witch strangely compelling. A perennial outsider, she at one point ran rings around the men in the company as Macbeth soliloquised, leaving them brandishing swords at empty space. Existing in the liminal spaces of the theatre, she gradually became more integrated, whether cradling Lady Macbeth’s head or escorting the dead to a candlelit series of platforms where they became a living monument.
The music impacted significantly on the spoken style, with speeches often delivered in a sing-song style – Ian Morgan’s Bloody Messenger, for example, latched onto specific kayagum notes which he matched for pitch and tone as he delivered his report of the battle from a kneeling position, where his hands offered a similarly abstracted expression. The least effective moments of the production, in fact, were those in which dialogue was delivered in a more or less naturalistic characterisation – Anna Zubrzycki, for instance, sometimes veered too far towards playing Lady Macbeth rather than presenting her, at seeming odds with the style of the piece; though, I should hasten to add, this was only very occasional.
Complementing the music was a tightly-choreographed series of complex movement sequences. It’s rare to see theatre so technically accomplished from both vocal and physical perspectives, and the integration of the two was spectacular, creating an organic and visually musical whole. Ewan Downie’s kinetic Malcolm was a case in point, delivering his lines in a blur of movement that obscured his face, but invested his words with an urgency that in turn drew attention to the emotional nature of his scenes. Rarely has Malcolm come across as such a desperate, conflicted man, despite his part being drastically cut.
The physical work was based around the use of sticks, exploring the beauty and violence of Eastern martial arts. As Lady Macbeth read her husband’s letter, she moved between the ensemble as they swiped and stabbed, while the Witch twirled two sticks in a corner, almost seeming to lead the men. The company’s adeptness both with handling and passing the weapons allowed them to create an elaborate ballet of props, passing like batons at key moments. The sleepwalking scene was visualised in Lady Macbeth’s attempt to gather the swords of her encroaching enemies, moving up to them as they brandished the sticks and gently prising them from their fingers; even as a terrified Macbeth took them back off her and threw them back to their owners. Eventually she collected the full set. Macbeth’s subsequent defiance of prophecy followed directly on: Lady Macbeth kneeled, and as Macbeth railed at Fate, he violently drew one stick at a time from her, with she wincing as if slashed. As he held the full bunch of sticks, the Witch led Lady Macbeth to a raised platform, where Banquo and Duncan already waited; and, as she announced the Queen’s death, Macbeth let the sticks fall to the ground.
This kind of representative physicality informed the entire production, allowing them to compress the text into 70 minutes. The use of tableau images was particularly important surrounding the death of Duncan. First the Macbeths, having made their plans, approached a pool of light, facing away from the audience as they were lit in silhouette by Duncan’s approach. Faroque Khan’s dynamic Duncan, introduced in mock fight with his attendants, was led onto a raised platform by Lady Macbeth and the Witch, and they together charmed him asleep in an iconic series of slow-motion movements, he falling backwards into the Witch’s lap. At the same time, Macbeth could be seen half-veiled at the back of the stage, holding out a hand in a visual foreshadowing of the dagger speech. One of the most interesting textual aspects of the production was that consequence often preceded action – so, Malcolm’s decision to flee to England preceded the announcement of the murder (staged powerfully, with Duncan moving slowly across the back of the stage as the cast responded histrionically), and the news of the murder of the Macduffs was followed by the appearance of Lady Macduff criticising her husband’s flight, played beautifully in conflict with Morgan’s sobbing penance.
The production was best thought of in terms of its sequences, such as these. Banquo’s death was especially powerful: Kacper Kuszewski’s Banquo and a Murderer, shifting their weight continually and running backwards in long, loping arcs, circled one another, and the Murderer repeatedly slashed out with a thin whip-like stick. Banquo grew increasingly punch-drunk, eventually struggling to get back up of the floor after falling, and ultimately collapsing prostrate. The death of Macbeth was played with deliberate echo: Macduff crossed the stage and slashed Macbeth on “untimely ripped”, and Macbeth convulsed on the floor, before struggling to his feet and the action being repeated twice more.
The “full of scorpions” scene was accompanied by three of the cast climbing the back wall of the theatre using rings, splaying themselves across the scenery like flies on a wall; yet spectacular images such as this were always accompanied by other members of the ensemble filling out the composition with more subtle actions in another part of the stage. Heightened by Robert Balinski’s emotive lighting palette, the company created rich visual compositions with detail that would doubtless repay repeated viewings. The point perhaps, however, was that one had no time to identity all the elements of the piece: it was the overall effect, of a beautiful and mystical story, that was important.
The production closed on a solemn note. Lady Macbeth cradled her dead husband, screaming and wailing, while Macduff knelt at the far end of the stage, sobbing at the enormity of his actions. A full blackout fell, leaving only a single candle burning. Macduff picked up the candle, his disembodied head and hand moving across the stage, and took it to the Macbeths, illuminating Macbeth’s face in flickering light. He then blew out the candle, plunging the world of the play into darkness. As the blackout lingered, the kayagum continued to play, its music becoming ever slower as the production receded into infinite black of death. Applause seemed trite after such a complete ending; it’s a production that I feel hugely privileged to have seen, and one that will stay with me for a long time.
May 02, 2010
Writing about web page http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theatre/annualtheatreseason/macbeth/
Lucy Bailey's recent outings at Shakespeare's Globe have been some of the biggest highlights of the theatre's annual season. Last year's Timon of Athens, in particular, made amazing, innovatory use of the space to create a theatrical experience that was total and participatory, creating something theatrically effective over any sense of historical authenticity. This exploration of the Globe's boundaries continued with Macbeth. A black canopy over half of the pit offered groundlings the chance to watch the action with their heads poking up through holes, rooting them to a spot and bringing them, quite literally, into the world of the play; for this black canopy was the pit of hell, seething and billowing on the edge of the stage.
Audience members shrieked as actors sprinted about under the canopy, brushing against legs and, in one case, apparently picking someone's pocket. The feeling of being rooted to the spot further induced panic as Frank Scantori's bloated, disgusting Porter threatened to throw his bucket of piss over our heads. Finally, and most dramatically, naked male bodies were thrust up through gaps in the canopy, bloodied and screaming in torment. This black sea of the underworld was the place were souls would suffer for eternity, and the scarily impressive make-up of gouges and wounds made this a truly effective experience for those of us standing among them.
The custodians of this world were the three Sisters, here comically dressed in the tattered uniforms of Globe stewards, metatheatrically linking the physical environment of our world with the metaphorical aesthetic of the play. Haggard and capped, and nominally led by the diminutive Karen Anderson, the Three acted to move tortured souls between the two worlds, whether bundling bodies through trapdoors or holding up the screaming spirits that appeared to Macbeth. Constantly in motion, and repeatedly appearing throughout the play, including as Macbeth's soldiers in the final act, they closed in on Macbeth throughout, governing the play's key actions and awaiting their prey.
The staging gimmick, unfortunately, was so dominant that it rather unbalanced the rest of the play, as well as the audience's attention. School groups were largely more interested in creating funny shapes under the canopy, and it induced something of an hysterical state in a lot of people that detracted attention from the play itself. This was made even more difficult by an entirely unnecessary pair of circular motorised rails hanging from the stage roof, from which were hung a black curtain and a series of burning cauldrons. The noise of this rail, coupled with the usual sound problems of the Globe (clearly, helicoptors are making up for lost time after the impact of the volcanic ash cloud) and the state of an audience distracted by the innovative staging, meant that for long parts of the action I could barely make out the words actors were saying - and I was standing at the very front of the pit.
When the play managed to break through, it was largely very decent, although individual performances were of mixed quality. Happily, both Elliot Cowan and Laura Rogers in the leads were extremely strong. Cowan's Macbeth was a man of powerful build and ambition, with a confident swagger that belied fears of the prophecies. When he showed moments of weakness, then, they carried all the more impact: asked by Lady Macbeth for the daggers, he kicked them back with his heel, unable to bring himself to even look at them. His physical ability manifested itself sexually (to the whooping delight of the school groups) in his return to Lady Macbeth. He approached her from behind a transparent black curtain as she mused, reaching out and enveloping her in the curtain, kissing her through it in a fantastic image that saw the man literally envelop the woman in darkness, violence and lust all in a freeze-framed kiss. As they stripped off and began (almost) copulating on the floor, one saw a healthy and driven relationship that empowered both of them, the sex in itself driving their ambition. As Macbeth progressed to power, though, this sexual aggression took on a more disturbing form, including a near-rape of her even as he excluded her from his plans to murder Banquo and Macduff. Finally alone and rearmed in his final scenes, he exuded a confidence in his own strength that is rarely seen in productions more concerned with showing his mental degradation; beckoning to Young Siward, he despatched his young foe with a casual disregard.
Rogers, meanwhile, was a fascinatingly conflicted Lady Macbeth. This was the most scared Lady Macbeth I've ever seen, with her nervousness and awkwardness only absent when in sexual contact with her husband. Where she would normally be dominant in the immediate aftermath of the murder, here she was as terrified of the bloody daggers as Macbeth, eventually steeling herself to take them back and walking fitfully towards Duncan's chamber. Her increasing terror of Macbeth saw this fragile woman slowly breaking apart even as he rebuffed her, and the events of the banquet scene left her in a shaking mess. The sleepwalking scene realised this breakdown, she stumbling around the stage with a wax candle and scrubbing at the floor in a panic before giving a horrific scream. It was an interestingly human take on Lady M., showing a woman whose ambition far exceeded her reach and paid the price for pushing herself too far.
Keith Dunphy was a remarkably weak Macduff, apparently bored in the role and keen to get his scenes over with as soon as possible. His voice was reedy throughout, and he played Macduff as keenly naive in the England scene, beaming in pleasure over Malcolm's trick. This was coupled with one of the poorest stage fights I've ever seen in his final tussle with Macbeth, a horribly anticlimactic end to the main action of the play. While much of this was related to Dunphy's performance, it also felt like a weakness I've complained about before of Rupert Goold's Shakespeare productions: that beneath the gimmicky, production design and high concept, Bailey struggles to direct simple dialogue scenes to match the flair elsewhere. The strengths of this production were visual and conceptual, but functional dialogue was treated as exactly that, and were simply boring to watch or listen to. Thankfully, Julius D'Silva is an excellent verse speaker, and his Ross brought interest and vocal variety to his scenes with the Old Man and the end of the England scene.
The Thane of Cawdor (Ken Shorter) was bound to a pillar as the bloodied soldier (one of the tortured souls of the opening scene) delivered his description of the battle, and he was messily dismembered in view of the audience. The actual death was juxtaposed with the image of Duncan leading a medieval religious ritual, his piety deliberately contrasted with the brutal slaughter of his enemies. James Clyde was a well-spoken and strong leader of soldiers, watching in dignified pleasure as the rest of the Thanes picked up Macbeth for a victory tour about the stage. This male-oriented world was one of masculine embracese and exchanges of swords, and one of the production's greatest strengths was in evoking a world of ritual and tradition. As Macbeth delivered his "If twere done" soliloquy, the Thanes were seated around the back of the stage engaged in a choreographed celebratory drinking ritual, raising their glasses and singing (led by Fleance) to the battle and each other. Evoking something of Beowulf, this element of ritual feasting led neatly up to the pivotal banquet scene in which Banquo's bloody ghost crawled out of a platter of food laid on the stage, the meats being shoved aside as a hand rose to clutch at Macbeth.
Hideous bagpipes scored the action, often from the yard, positioning the devil's pipes around the boundaries of the hell-scape from which the witches arose. The sounds of evil were most pivotal during the near-comic horror of the apparitions scene, which intelligently utilised the theoretical spaces established earlier. Macbeth was lowered into a trapdoor, basking in the heats of hell as if in a hot tub. The apparitions were then paraded in front of him, miming their words while the witches spoke the speeches. Macduff delivered his own prophecy as a ventriloquist's dummy; a voodoo baby promised Macbeth that no-one born of woman would hurt him; while an idiot-Malcolm, escorted by the Porter, babbled the Birnam Wood prophecy while shaking a rattle. Scantori's Porter, a looming Igor-like presence in Macbeth's court, became the Witch's pet in this scene, collared and leering as he escorted their helpers in. Finally, Fleance appeared with a crown on his head while crowns were passed among the Globe audience and hung on chains hanging from the roof, culminating in a furious melee of activity which suddenly vanished to leave Macbeth alone onstage. In moments such as these, Bailey's conceptual approach was satisfactorily realised.
The bloody violence that pervaded the production was ever-present on stage, especially in the brutal butchery of Macduff's family, most horrifically in the case of the daughter, who ran off stage and was brought back on hanging limply from the soldier's arms. The casual dumping of bodies into trapdoors, overseen by Clyde's Seyton, was just as horrible. Christian Bradley's strong, confident Banquo was slashed and torn, spurts of blood gushing over the audience from the stage daggers, even as he helped Fleance flee up a ladder; while the bloodied bodies of both Duncan and Lady Macbeth were displayed to the world. Lady Macbeth herself was passed out into the pit of hell, disappearing from view under the black billows, while Macbeth was forced into the same by Macduff. As Macduff announced Macbeth's death, his naked and bloodied body emerged from the pit, howling in torment as the witches cackled over their latest victim.
Conceptually, then, this was a strong production, let down in execution by a couple of weak performances and a lack of attention to the less gimmicky moments. While I approve heartily of the Globe's innovation in staging (it's a living theatre, not a museum), I think Bailey's production is a warning over how disruptive the trickery can become: it's a simple space, and attention needs to be paid to how redesigning it affects the acoustics and dynamics. Nonetheless, a decent start to the new season.
April 02, 2010
Writing about web page http://www.cheekbyjowl.com/productions/macbeth/index.html
I loved Cheek by Jowl's new production of Macbeth, and yet, as I left it, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, for I was beginning to wonder whether the company may have lost their ability to change my world. If you've seen any of the company's previous productions, then you'll have a pretty good sense of this Macbeth without having even been: stark sets, impenetrable darkness, a deep stage, spectacular use of lighting, actors performing together over great distances, scenes overlapping, lots of young men exploring the extents of their bodies, wonderful acting and scenes featuring the entire company standing together to perform a core concept (here, the Witches). It's a potent and fantastic mix, but for the first time in a Cheek by Jowl production, I found it all quite expected. Still, that's a personal disappointment and not one I'd expect many other people to feel.
The most notable initial feature was the small amount of named cast. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Macduff, the Porter, Banquo and Malcolm were accompanied by a chorus of "Thanes" - although parts such as Ross, Angus, Lennox, Donaldbain, Fleance, Young Siward, Seyton and the Murderers were present and performed conventionally, they were all subsumed by the larger concept of an anonymous troupe of black clad performers whose bodies and voices were more often choreographed to create physical images of the play's action. Thus, David Collings's Duncan was a blind man whose addresses to his subordinates became a ritual of touch, symbolised further by the rest of the company laying hands on him as he spoke. Malcolm and Donaldbain's grief became part of a larger mosaic of bodies comforting one another. Macbeth was accompanied by an army of echoing shadows as he went through the motions of the battle as the wounded Captain described it. As well as creating striking images, these stylised displays went some way towards universalising the action, describing it in terms of timeless resonance rather than naturalistic realisation. In many ways, the production seemed to suggest that Macbeth was too epic a story to do more than gesture towards, and our imaginations were left to fill in the rest.
The enormous playing space of the Silk Street Theatre was maximised and drenched in an overwhelming darkness that allowed actors to be swallowed up by the black as they marched upstage, as well as for more particular effects such as the appearance of Banquo's head in the far distance. Enormous slatted wooden boxes stood upright to right and left, through which blinding light shone, illuminating the actors primarily from the sides and creating shafts of light that criss-crossed the space, furthering a conspiratorial atmosphere. Smaller crates provided the only movable set, being brought to the main playing space for use as chairs for the banquet or held overhead as Malcolm's soldiers marched towards Dunsinane.
This fast production (two hours with no interval) was relentless in tone, though with some surprising moments of comedy. The importance of the tonal break occasioned by Kelly Hotten's Porter was thoroughly realised: reeled out in a richly detailed wooden booth with phone, radio, Heat magazine and nail files, this red-headed Scots woman inhabited an entirely different world to the rest of the production. Hilariously, she was besotted with Macduff, and when she realised who she had been keeping locked out (continually replacing the receiver of the door buzzer on the wall), she mouthed "I love you" into the phone, squirted perfume under her arms and into her crotch and left her booth in order to flirt shamelessly with him. The appearance of Hotten as Lady Macduff later made for a fun comparison. Also fun, though more pointed, was Orlando James' Malcolm in a rivetting England scene. As Malcolm described his evils, he adopted a flamboyantly camp manner and voice that contrasted with Macduff's stillness and quiet Scots accent. Deliciously unctuous, James relished his "testing" of Macduff and contrasted his performance nicely with his "true" self as he finally revealed his backbone.
David Caves' Macduff was the emotional heart of the production. While Macbeth gave the murderers their instructions, a family portrait was established downstage with Macduff embracing both wife and son. This still portrait bled into the scene at Macduff's castle, with the thane leaving the picture as his flight to England was mentioned. His later receipt of the news, sat on a crate and surrounded by the anonymous thanes who laid their hands upon him, was choked and devastatingly restrained, his grief internalised and barely expressible.
Fight scenes were stylised and performed at distance, the victims responding to imagined actions with the attackers often at the other end of the stage or entirely absent. This occasionally bordered unintentionally on the comic because of the detail of the wounds inflicted, with Banquo and Lady Macduff in turn acting out every punch and slash when a more suggestive fall might have fitted better. Certainly the sight of Lady Macduff being invisibly raped was disconcerting, but I found the level of detail rather lessened the impact.
The stand-out performance was Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth. In her opening soliloquy, Hille's performance was nervy, characterised by stammers and twitches as her mind leapt ahead of her words. There was a manic quality to this performance that suggested a disposition towards madness even before her decline. Her climactic sleepwalking scene, buffeted in by the rest of the company wielding crates was particularly rivetting, her quiet muttering suddenly punctuated by a scream of anguish towards Macbeth (if I remember rightly, on her shout that "Banquo's dead"). Following this scene, in a beautifully tender sequence, she sat on a crate and remained onstage until the announcement of her death. As she sat in silence, with a smile on her face, Macbeth stood and cradled her chin, the two sharing a reminiscence of happiness until, finally, her death was reported, at which point she turned and left. Her presence was Macbeth's fantasy, an illusion of a time past that no longer had any place.
Her relationship with Will Keen's Macbeth was characterised by struggle, their restraint working both ways as they argued. With hands manouvering around each other, clasps continually formed and then broken, even their day-to-day routine was a battle for control and stability that was never resolved. During the excellent banquet scene, it was Macbeth's turn to show his anxiety as he marched about the stage, upturning crates and shaking in anguish. It was comfort he needed, and the tenderness demonstrated by Lady Macbeth cut through his fears and allowed him to regain control. The tragedy here was in the circumstances that had driven two fragile people to the brink, when one could see that all they needed was each other. In the final moments, Lady Macbeth crept in from the sidelines and lay down beside Macbeth's broken body, pulling herself in close and going to sleep next to him. On this achingly beautiful image, the lights faded to black, the couple finding peace at last.
This ethereal, shadowy production captured a sense of breakdown and collapse that personalised the tragedy. The moments of emotion and poignancy struck through with resonance, particularly so as much of the rest of the production felt a little cold in its approach: Cheek by Jowl's style deconstructed the play but didn't build as much in its place as their other recent productions. However, this haunting production will no doubt stay with the viewer for a long time.
March 12, 2009
Matthew Dunster’s new production of Macbeth for the Royal Exchange fits neatly into recent fashions regarding the staging of this play. It emphasises the Weird Sisters, bringing them onstage throughout the action, contemporises events and has a particular concern with children, some or all of which were exemplified by the most recent RSC and Chichester productions, as well as films such as Gregory Doran’s TV adaptation of his RSC production and Penny Woolcock’s Macbeth on the Estate, these last two both referenced in the programme. Yet Dunster adds to this trend with a thought-provoking and often shocking production with a clear focus and inventive staging.
Central to this production were the Weird Sisters – here, three young girls, playing in their bedroom as the audience filed in to the auditorium. The in-the-round Exchange made for a particularly intimate setting, in which the girls played and chanted sweetly. With a sudden crash, though, soldiers ran in, threw the girls off their bed and created barricades for themselves, the sisters screaming and cowering together as machine guns and helicopters drowned out all other noise. Macbeth and Banquo then entered, shooting the enemy soldiers in the head, and proceeded to abuse the girls, Macbeth grabbing one by the hair while Banquo graphically raped another. The sisters became the witches in response to their trauma, comforting each other as they tried to make sense of the world and finding their power in their unity; the raped sister, for example, lost her voice (her tongue cut out?) after the act, but her younger sister held her fingers to her throat and ventriloquised for her. Later, the raped sister found her voice in speaking the words going through Macbeth’s head, projecting taunts into his mind.
The Sisters were thus given clear motivation for their persecution of Macbeth and Banquo and became involved on stage in all the important actions leading to their respective falls. One girl hovered near the murderers as they attacked Banquo, helping Fleance escape while laughing nastily as Banquo was repeatedly kicked and stabbed. The production’s primary aim seemed to be the exploration of the effects of war on children, showing the girls increasingly desensitised to violence and their own bodies. The second act began with the three witches begging, dancing to a violently militaristic rock tune, exhibiting themselves and acting out being shot in the head before shaking a tray of coins and starting again. The raped sister withdrew into herself, rarely making eye contact with anyone else, while the sister who had been manhandled by Macbeth donned soldier costume and became increasingly violent and assertive. Macbeth’s final meeting with the girls saw them dancing again, kissing and groping one another for his ‘entertainment’.
The graphic content of the Sisters’ scenes was unsettling and often upsetting, the lives of the children (one an actual child, the others young and small adult actresses) destroyed by the extreme violence around them. As the girls progressed through the play, their eyes became visibly deadened, and the rituals of the witches seemed to be their constructed way of coping, such as their casual bloodletting before summoning up their masters. It was painful to witness, and one found oneself in the unusual position of sympathising with the witches in their ongoing persecution of Macbeth. This hugely effective central concept dominated the production and brought challenging resonance to the story.
The updating to an alternate contemporary world (described as “A Scotland, in a Europe, 2009”) was largely successful. Nobles marched about in fatigues and messages were delivered by e-mail and text. Interestingly, technology got around the ‘problem’ of Ross’ initial pretence to Macduff that his wife was well, by having Ross genuinely believe that was the case until receiving a text later in the scene reporting the murder. Lady Macduff’s sleepwalking took place in an institution, with doctor and nurse peering through a window as they took notes on her behaviour, while a modern war room with tactical computers was re-created for the final battle. This was a fast world of instantaneous communication and unstoppable forces, with no time to take stock or question what was happening. This could most clearly be seen in Heather Peace’s Lennox, a soldier in Duncan’s army who became increasingly uncomfortable with what she overheard while standing guard at Macbeth’s door. The final orders to have Macduff’s family killed were more than she could bear, and with a great wrench she tore the stripes of his army off her sleeve and ran off to join the enemy. Events moved at such a speed that even questioning the status quo became an active act of resistance.
Doubling decisions brought out interesting links between sections of the play. Malcolm and Donalbain, having fled under suspicion of being murderers, were brought back as the two Russian heavies employed by Macbeth to kill Banquo. Banquo and Fleance, meanwhile, were reunited in the final act as the doctor and nurse employed to minister to Macbeth and his queen, allowing Banquo a presence as his enemies fell. Perhaps most powerful, though, was the appearance of the two elder witches, now dressed as adults, as Lady Macduff and a Nurse. Rebecca Callard’s Lady Macduff, having been raped in her earlier appearance as a Weird Sister, was now forced to undergo new horrors as Seyton and the murderers invaded her kitchen, drowned her son in the kitchen sink and then snapped her neck, while off-stage her baby and its Nurse were shot.
The production’s core concept and impressive work in the supporting roles, however, came at the expense of the leads. Nicholas Gleaves and Hilary Maclean were decent as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but with the production’s emphasis so firmly elsewhere it was difficult for either to make an impression. Gleaves’ Macbeth, a monster from the start in his treatment of the Sisters, was unsympathetic, and the rather self-conscious device of shining a spotlight on him for every aside actually served to isolate him further within the on-stage crowd rather than connect his private thoughts with the audience. Gratuitous nudity as he showered after Duncan’s murder also lent nothing to the production except the titters of a school group in the gallery. Yet Gleaves was effective when allowed to simply act, and he gave a particularly strong performance as the English troops massed; borrowing from Richard III, his Macbeth dithered and ranted, shouting for Seyton when Seyton was directly in front of him while the Doctor hovered with a syringe. Macbeth’s growing insanity was well-realised, and the decision to allow him to act relatively independently of the witches in his final scenes was a good one, making him responsible for his own final actions (at least, until the gun he pointed at Macduff misfired, allowing Macduff to stab him).
Maclean’s Lady Macbeth felt relatively unimportant in the production, but was particularly strong in her first scenes as she read Macbeth’s e-mail and then played host to Duncan. Some history seemed to be hinted at between Duncan and Lady Macbeth, he clearly angry and barely able to look at her when she arrived to greet him to her castle. She matched her husband in strength, but disappeared from view and memory during the second half. The trappings of her scenes distracted from her performance : the grotesquely bloody Banquo and leering witches at dinner, the transparent screen and hospital paraphernalia during the sleepwalking scene. While the scenes remained effective, it was almost as if we were having the focus deliberately taken away from her performance, which seemed a shame.
There was plenty of interesting work in the other performances although, as with the leads, the concept and staging detracted from the actual acting. Christopher Colquhoun was a solid Banquo, posing a genuine physical threat to Macbeth; Jason Done’s Macduff showed powerful grief as he received the news of his wife’s death; John Stahl’s older Ross was increasingly crestfallen at the growing chaos and almost wept at Duncan’s death; and John MacMillan’s Malcolm grew from a scared child to a strong leader, drilled by Seyward in England and commanding during the final battle.
The play concluded on an odd note. Malcolm’s final speech to his soldiers became a rehearsal, as he began running over lines again and again, repeating them to try and get the sound right. Servants entered and removed his fatigues, dressing him in a now-familiar suit, shirt, red tie and black overcoat. MacMillan’s superficial resemblance to Barack Obama was made gradually explicit, and we were put in mind of the statesman preparing for inauguration, practising his lines before stepping out before the crowd. As he left the stage, and videos showed him taking a podium, the witches reappeared with Fleance and gave him a gun, anticipating Malcolm’s imminent assassination. This failed to work on two levels: the first is that the witches, within the play, had clear motivations for their pursuit of Macbeth and Banquo, and there appeared to be no reason in the production’s internal logic that they should turn their attentions to Malcolm, other than for the simple continuation of violence. The second is that the parallel itself was fairly superficial; nowhere else in the production were we put in mind of actual political situations. The link felt gratuitous, allowing for an immediate murmur of recognition but not adding anything of substance to either Obama’s or Malcolm’s stories.
Small gripes aside, however, this was an effective and often moving production, one that refused to shy away from violence and forced us to consider the effects of our actions on the young. A powerful appropriation of Shakespeare.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.
August 11, 2008
For two productions only, the National Theatre has opened a new space, the Square2, just outside the main theatre on the South Bank. It's an odd space, a large flat open area with audience standing around on three sides on stepped platforms behind crash barriers on raked platforms. Only a low wall separates it from the riverside walk (low enough for the local chavs to peer over and hurl abuse, sadly), giving the venue a wonderfully exposed feel. Only a mile or so from the Globe, the Square2 provides a very different experience of Shakespeare, the atmosphere more akin to a sporting event on the edges of the real world, rather than closed off from it.
The sporting event comparison is perhaps prompted by the use the production itself made of the space, though. After rave reviews at last year's Edinburgh, Teatr Biuro Podrozy have brought their Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? to London for a handful of performances. Perhaps better thought of as a performance piece inspired by Shakespeare's play, rather than as a version of it, the Polish company occupied the unusual space in a fascinating and commanding way, utilising motorbikes, flaming firebrands and masked women on stilts to spectacularly fill their sixty minutes.
Very little text remained in this drastically-cut production, and about half of the remaining text was pre-recorded, the actors effectively miming. The production instead concentrated on the visual, using the bare minimum of text to explicate the activity. Only five of the major characters - Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Banquo's Son (Fleance) and The King (Duncan) - remained, creating a simpler and far more linear narrative that gave the company the flexibility to exptend individual moments with representative imagery that explored the significance of Macbeth's fall.
Behind the audience, on a high gantry, stood Hecate, a mezzo-soprano who underscored the action throughout with operatic vocals over music that veered from orchestral to electronic (her voice combining with the recorded text to create a unified "soundtrack" for the performers to act to). The play was bookended with her singing of lines from T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday:
Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert.
This "Motto", suggesting a peace that only death can bring, made explicit the importance that director Pawel Szkotak placed on death throughout the production. Seven poles, six arranged in a circle around the last, stood tall and upright in the centre of the courtyard area, and a masked figure on stilts entered with a burning brand to light their tops, the poles symbolising those who were to die in the course of Macbeth's ascent (The King, his two Guards, Banquo, the two Murderers and Lady Macbeth). The King here, though, was no saint. Sat on a dais at the far end of the courtyard, messengers roared up to him on motorbikes with reports on enemy munitions, which he received by casually beating them, or in one case even shooting the man in the head. The costumes and bikes were reminiscent of World War II, the King becoming a cruel European dictator. Shortly after, the Defeated King (Cawdor) was brought in, naked and trapped in a wooden cage dragged behind a motorbike. The victorious King clambered on top of the cage to taunt his prisoner and then cut his throat. Altogether, it made for a powerful opening.
The main attraction of the production was the stiltwalking, with the three witches usually appearing on elongated legs that raised them a good eight feet above the ground. These were no ungainly poles, though, but long and graceful spider-legs that the actors could run and even high-kick on. Their movements became terrifying as a result, their strides constantly threatening. The witches reappeared regularly throughout the play, knocking down poles as the deaths mounted up and, increasingly, tortuing Macbeth. The supernatural haunted the living at all turns; here, even Banquo chased an apparition of his son playing with a metal crown and Lady Macbeth threw things at the advancing ghost of Banquo, clutching a bloody head atop stilts. The worst was saved for Macbeth himself. From his first meeting with the Witches, where he repeatedly shot them dead only to have them rise and dance about him, they toyed with him and played upon his bloody nature. In a climactic moment following the murders, the three emerged in a line on stilts, pushing a "Death Machine" (a rolling cylinder with long handle) in which skulls rattled around. They chased Macbeth around the courtyard with the machine, trying to run him over; yet, eventually, Macbeth faced them and stood before the cylinder unafraid, at which the spirits retreated. They returned, in double the numbers, to advance on Macbeth with long logs, which they threw down at the tyrant from on high in his final defeat.
The production's strengths were in these evocative images, and to list them would take forever: the burning corpse of Macbeth, seated upright as Banquo's Son stood before it; the burning strings with which the witches encircled Macbeth and Banquo; the naked Lady Macbeth standing in a tin bath, obscured by darkness as she washed away blood; Banquo's Son riding a toy bike in rings around the increasingly confused Macbeth. Verbal description struggles to capture these images, and I'd strongly recommend looking at these photosfrom their website. Combined, the production gave the impression of being a moving series of snapshots, scenes of nightmarish horror from a linear and uncomplicated descent into evil. Yet there was much that was moving in these images - the child-man Banquo's Son, playing with toys made out of crowns and sticks, was a beacon of innocence in the literal midst of the horror, stopping and staring up in awe at the marching stiltwalkers who accompanied the King. There was even a bizarre attempt at comedy in a long sequence setting up the stage for a banquet where servants danced with brooms and a groom and maid, clearly having an affair, ate fruit and spat it in each other's faces for no obvious reason.
The cast, partly owing to the lack of live dialogue, became part of the tableaux, an element in the design rather than fully-fledged performances in their own right. There was plenty of good work though. Scarily, Piotr Kazmierczak's Macbeth and Jakub Papuga's Banquo were almost identical in looks, which provided an interesting insight into their characters. They appeared together, firing machine guns from a motorbike and sidecar, and both were seen chasing illusory crowns as if both harboured ambitions. Macbeth's orders for Banquo's death immediately after the King's thus became an exercise in tidying up, killing off a potential competitor.
The programme claimed that the performance was "an attempt to see Shakespeare's drama as a crime myth". This isn't the impression I was left with; istead, it came across as a dark fairy tale, a story of demonic intervention and damnation, of weak humans and destructive actions. In this I felt it lacked a depth of reading, partly because of the reduction of all plot and character elements to their absolute basics. This was made up for by a visceral and haunting experience that made human evils terrifyingly clear. Both brutal and beautiful, this was one of the most original and inventive takes on Shakespeare I've ever seen, and no doubt I'll be writing again on it shortly.
July 03, 2008
On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.
I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.
The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.
Hardeep Singh Kohli
Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London
The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.
Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester
The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.
Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London
This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.
Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon
The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!), but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.
Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk
By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.
I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.
October 08, 2007
Have you ever left the room during a cup final to hear the roars behind you telling you you’ve just missed the crucial goal? Or left a gig early only to be told about the secret encore afterwards? Or gone to see your favourite actor in a play only to find out the understudy’s had to take his place? If so, you may understand the way I’m feeling after this weekend’s production of Macbeth. Robbed.
Unfortunately, I have nothing to blame this on apart from the theatre. Or, more to the point, my seats in the theatre. Right up in the upper circle, with a bunch of schoolkids (why a school trip on a saturday night?!) kicking me and only the distant shape of Patrick Stewart’s head from which to make out a performance.
Distance doesn’t always matter in the theatre, of course, but Rupert Goold’s Chichester Festival production of Macbeth is an actor’s production. Being hailed in the press as one of the greatest productions of this play ever, its strength is quite clearly the towering performances of Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the lead roles. Or so I’ve heard. Because from where I was I could see nothing of the subtlety or expression that I’m sure he was giving out. This did, admittedly, lead me to concentrate more on the actors’ tremendous voice work, and Stewart’s distinctive gravitas and wry humour were as wonderful as ever. Alas, though, the “Best Macbeth ever” was lost to me. The soliloquies became just a distant man speaking the lines with no way of telling what he was actually doing with them. It’s not totally the theatre’s failling- a good actor should be able to play to the whole house, and Stewart’s performance did not stretch up to us. No wonder the kids behind us were so bored. It’s Michael Boyd who commented on the fact that children would never form a bond with Shakespeare if they were kept so far away from him.
The grievances of distance aside, there was an interesting production to be seen. The critics raved about the sheer amount of ideas thrown into the mix (an interesting turnaround for several reviewers who usually despise “buggering about with the Bard”. My guess is that it’s acceptable when you have a star name in the lead), and with good cause. The production found a home in the underground bunkers of the Second World War, a dank kitchen/hospital ward staffed by three Nightingale nurses, the witches. Our introduction to them saw them inject the bloodied sergeant with poison, and throughout the production they waited on the nobles, prepared food and generally watched over events with a suitably terrifying air. The distance here helped- unable to see their faces, they became even more mysterious and inhuman.
The new setting led for some wonderful moments. The final scenes took on the air of a Downfall style climax with the underground bunker being stormed, and Young Seyward’s death was a particularly shocking highlight: approaching Macbeth with a knife, the tyrant casually pulled out a gun and shot him without a moment’s consideration. Banquo’s murder was even better, with the cast creating a passenger train out of chairs and bodies and the two murderers dressed as ticket inspectors making their way up the train, passing Banquo a cup filled with poison for a death Bond would have been proud of.
Rupert Goold reprised many of the features that helped and hindered his Tempest at the RSC last year. Projections were used to good effect to hint at the outside world being changed drastically from the tiny bunker and, memorably, to show reams of spiralling blood during the ghost scenes. Less welcome was his surprisingly static approach to dialogue. Scenes heavy on conversation were generally given an interesting set up but then the actors were left to make the best they could of it. This was true of the England scene, despite an excellent turn from Michael Feast’s Macbeth. Goold had clearly also been studying Gregory Doran’s RSC production, the Porter in particular being taken almost wholesale from that excellent production.
The high concepts worked well too. The rapping dance of the witches was a welcome change of tone, and their Frankensteinian reanimation of corpses for the prophecies was effective. The banquet scene was begun before the interval showing Macbeth’s view of events, including the conversation with the murderer and the physical appearance of the bloodied Banquo from the lift. After the interval, though, the scene was repeated from the point of view of the rest of the diners, with no ghost appearing. Later, a parlour dance became a dance macabre as Macbeth found himself waltzing the ghost.
This was an actors’ show though, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood were undoubtedly the highlights. Stewart brought a twisted humanity to the role which came across when addressing the body of his wife and in his final moments as he considered putting the pistol in his own mouth. His final defeated “Enough” as he saw the witches and allowed Macduff the victory was less of a defeat than it sounds, finally taking control of his inevitable destiny. Fleetwood too was wonderful, bringing vulnerability to a part too often taken to extremes of evil. Even without the proximity the Chichester audiences had the two leads carried the production and made for a very enjoyable, if often frustrating, evening. Not the best Macbeth ever, but definitely an important one.