All 14 entries tagged Macbeth

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November 27, 2011

Macbeth @ The New Theatre, Nottingham

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

Dunsinane (National Theatre of Scotland/RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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

Macbeth (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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.

Macbeth publicity art

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

Macbeth (Song of the Goat Theatre/ Teatr Piesn Kozla) @ The Barbican Pit

Writing about web page

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.