By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Venue: Trafalgar Studios
Date: Thursday 25th April 2013
We were running late today and nearly missed this performance; the day would have gone better if we had. Steve may have ‘enjoyed’ this slightly more than I did, but then he was one in from the end of our row and thus could see a bit more of the action. Our seats were at the back of the stage, second row, and while they gave us an interesting perspective, the poor sightlines made our experience worse than it might have been had we sat elsewhere. (We were late booking, I should point out.) Judging by the gaps we could see after the interval, we weren’t alone in our opinion of the production; only our eternal optimism kept us there for another turgid hour or so.
The grunge design was combined with slasher movie tropes – rubber masks, lots of blood, etc. – to create a derivative and superficial version of the play apparently intended purely to impress the (theatrically) inexperienced young women who had flocked to this afternoon’s performance for a sight of James McAvoy. They were thrilled, judging by the number of them standing at the end, and I just hope that this sort of crass commercial success doesn’t lead to lots more of the same clogging up London’s (or the UK’s) theatres. Not that I mind a production making money, but setting such a low standard would be a disaster for British theatre in the long run.
Now for some details on the staging. With seats at the back of the stage, the acting space was mainly a broad arch which held various doors and had a curved space in front of it (I’ll orient my descriptions as for the regular seating). They used several trapdoors all over this space, and also entered along the aisle between the rear seats. For the arrival of Birnam Wood, they even opened up the rear doors of the theatre to let the massed ranks in; all six of them. The brief glimpse of daylight was a welcome sight: the end of the tunnel was nigh.
There were grilles set into the floor under the arch, so naturally there was rain from time to time, if you can glorify the few spots of drizzle they produced with such a title, and given that this was clearly meant to be a gorefest, there was even a light misting of blood towards the end when Macduff killed Macbeth – lots of cleaning up to do before tonight’s performance. The stage furniture was all of a piece with the set: grimy, battered and in need of a good clean (or perhaps a trip to the dump). They used plastic bottles for the wine, and for the ‘feast’, Macbeth ladled baked beans out of a well-worn catering pan onto enamel plates. Two trolleys appeared from time to time; they were attached to each other to form the banqueting table and then turned through ninety degrees for Macduff’s castle in Fife.
England was a shade cleaner, but that may have been because of the incessant rain. We were told we were now in England by having a number of actors who were draped in St George’s cross tabards, covered with clear plastic ponchos, walk from the back onto the front of the stage. They then formed up so that we could read their placards, turning around after a while so that we folk at the back could read the slogans; I forget what they were, but nothing remarkable or relevant. They soon left the stage to Malcolm and Macduff. Both Steve and I felt this staging was something of a calumny; if you think England’s wet….. The costumes were along similar lines, with everybody making do with cast-offs with patches and rips, and the whole wardrobe needed several cycles in the laundrette before I’d go near it, not to mention the grime on the cast.
The play began with lights out and a loud noise. With the lights back on, the three witches appeared through trapdoors and were each wearing some sort of gas mask: kudos to the actresses for getting their lines out clearly through those. They wore army fatigues, but very tatty ones, and I noticed that the nearest witch had a lot of blood on her neck; yep, she was the “bloody man” in the next scene. After arranging their next meeting the witches were quickly off, and with much noise and rushing about Duncan and his men took the stage.
This first explanation of the situation was good enough, and for the next scene the witches, having wound up their charm, stood aside as Macbeth and Banquo whooped and hollered their way onto the stage. I know they’d just come from winning a battle, but to me they looked like two soldiers suffering from PTSD acting out some nightmare flashback scenario. Given that this production was set in the future and focusing on the breakdown of society, perhaps that was the intended association, but it simply didn’t appeal to me as a suitable introduction of the main character.
The prophecies went well enough, with good reactions from both Macbeth and Banquo, and then the messengers from the king turned up. Again, the emphasis was on brutality, with Banquo and Macbeth overpowering Ross and Angus and holding swords to their throats as if they didn’t know who to trust; fair enough, given Duncan’s comments about the ex-Thane of Cawdor. Even so, I felt this went on for too long, and even after relaxing their grip and appearing to accept the men as friends, they grabbed them again later in the scene for no apparent reason. It seemed a bit gimmicky to me and didn’t really fit with the text.
The scene with Duncan receiving the news of the previous Cawdor’s execution reminded me how foolish this king could be; from recognising that “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” he’s about to build “an absolute trust” on another man who will betray him. Macbeth and Banquo were gracious in their responses to Duncan, with Banquo being more direct and less flowery than Macbeth. Macbeth actually slid forward on his knees just before Duncan announced the succession would go to Malcolm, but I don’t think anyone else noticed it. Macbeth was certainly upset at this news and not only didn’t go over to congratulate Malcolm, he left the king as fast as he could with the excuse of preparing his castle for the king’s visit.
Lady Macbeth’s accent was a little off to my ear, and she came across like a keelie from a housing estate, as if we were watching a Scottish version of Shameless. Her invocation of evil was so-so, and her brief chat with Macbeth didn’t promise much at this point, although the sexual aspect of their relationship was clear.
The comments about Macbeth’s castle seemed totally out of place given the context of a futuristic, weather-drowned Scotland. After Duncan’s arrival, the performance went down the toilet, literally. From my vantage point I had already spotted a loo seat on the far side of the stage, tucked behind the walls. It was pretty obvious how it would be used, so when it was brought forward for this scene I wasn’t at all surprised when Macbeth rushed over to it and threw up; a bad case of pre-assassination nerves. He was there for a while, which gave me time to notice the work belt around his waist, and I had a brief chuckle to myself; not back two hours from the wars and already the lady wife had him doing all those little jobs round the castle!
From an unpromising start, this was probably one of the best scenes overall. I very much liked the way that James McAvoy emphasised the importance of a host not killing a guest, something specific to Scottish culture and one of the reasons for the strong feelings of horror at the Glencoe Massacre – the Campbells were the guests of the MacDonalds they killed. I haven’t seen a production bring that out before – well done. Then I enjoyed Macbeth’s off-hand reference to having received praise from “all sorts of people”, as if he couldn’t actually remember who. But the best bit was the way Lady Macbeth used the experience of losing a child, presumably an experience they shared, to hook him into her plans. His look of suffering indicated how much this loss meant to him as well, and it was one of the best interpretations of this moment that I’ve seen (or partly seen – Lady Macbeth had her back to me throughout).
The scenes involving the killing of the king were OK, and then we got to the porter (combined with Seyton?). She spat before the word “English” and was otherwise unremarkable. Lady Macbeth appeared to faint as a distraction this time, and Duncan’s sons did the usual flit to England and Ireland. I think the interval came after this, but I can’t be sure. If it was, then the second half started with the old man and Ross discussing the situation. When Macduff arrived, his family were with him as well, and the Macduffs all headed off to Fife together.
After checking on Banquo’s planned activities for the day, Macbeth spoke to the murderers, who were being played by two of the witches wearing rubber masks – one was a pig’s head and the other some kind of scary face. Again, they did well to get their lines out clearly with these obstructions in the way.
Nothing to report from Macbeth’s long conversation with his wife, nor from the killing of Banquo apart from the fact that the porter/Seyton was the third murderer and wore a scary clown mask. The banquet scene was OK, and Banquo’s ghost didn’t appear for the first of Macbeth’s visions, which allowed us to see his madness from the perspective of the court. Banquo did come up through a trapdoor at the front of the stage for the second occasion, and by this time the stage was getting pretty messy with spilled beans and drinks going everywhere.
Immediately after this scene, the witches joined Macbeth in the banqueting hall. They made up an evil-looking concoction in the one remaining cooking pan on the table and gave him ladles of it to drink, suggesting that the apparitions were drug-induced hallucinations which Macbeth saw while gazing into the pot (I think). For the final apparition Banquo appeared on stage with his descendants.
The killing of the Macduff clan was a drawn-out affair. The two trolleys had been turned round so they crossed the stage widthways. Lady Macduff’s conversations with Ross and her daughter were OK but nothing special. The warning came too late as usual – if she’d got her luggage together sooner instead of bitching about her husband she’d have been long gone before the murderers got there.
She hid her daughter inside one of the trolleys; it had a shiny door, and I wondered briefly if the Macduffs were going to be attacked by velociraptors (as in Jurassic Park). No such luck, although I suspect the entire theatre would be cleared double quick if one of those creatures had actually appeared. The two murderers were followed onto the stage by Macbeth himself, and after Lady Macduff had been killed on the table and the body taken away, it was Macbeth who heard a small sound from the trolley. He paused by the door, then closed it softly and moved back towards the trolleys to see what he could find. He called gently for her to come out, but she didn’t, so he simply stuck his sword through the side of the cupboard and she thrashed about inside for a bit to indicate her death throes. All a bit overdone for me.
Down in England, Malcolm’s confrontation with Macduff went reasonably well, although by this time I was heartily sick of the pernicious shouting which so many of the cast were doing regardless of the situation. Jamie Ballard, as Macduff, has already shown his skill at delivering Shakespearean dialogue in the superb Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory. Forbes Masson (Banquo) has done sterling work in many Shakespearean plays, not least Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle. So why, oh why, did these excellent actors have to shout so many of their lines needlessly? We could only conclude that this was a directorial choice, and a pretty poor one at that. When they weren’t shouting, the dialogue came across well enough, and the effect of his wife and child’s death on Macduff was clear to see.
The rest of the play rattled through without much to comment on or commend. Unlike an earlier production, I was unable to fall asleep to pass the time, so if there had been anything interesting I’m pretty sure I would have spotted or heard it. For the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, Macbeth was sitting on a chair just out of my sight near the front of the stage, so I couldn’t tell if his expression supported the strange disjointed and warbling delivery of the lines. Without this visual assistance, the speech sounded like an attempt to do ‘something different’ which ended up being something ridiculous, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
During the battle scenes, Macbeth was confronted by a soldier with a rifle, against which he had nothing to offer but a knife or two – kitchen implements were often the weapon of choice in this production. It was hardly believable, despite Macbeth’s conviction that he couldn’t be killed, that he would be able to disarm his gun-toting opponent, but that’s what they wanted us to accept. I was happy enough that in this dystopian setting guns would be in short supply, but that usually means that those who have them tend to beat those who don’t, at least in this sort of battle.
When Macbeth was killed by Macduff the red mist descended, literally, making a puddle in the middle of the stage. After the body had been removed through a trapdoor, the final scene, with Macbeth’s bloody head being brought up out of the trapdoor by Macduff, caused consternation amongst the young women in the front rows; hands were clapped to just about every mouth in horror. I was delighted; at last we could leave! After the minimum applause I felt I could get away with, I edged round the side of the seats and made my way out into the fresh air – delightful.
This production suffered from having a concept imposed on it, which in my experience usually leads to a shallower interpretation of the text, as only those bits which support the concept are explored in any depth. So much of the staging was gimmicky instead of being thought through, and I found the attempt to turn this play into a study of a society in disintegration just didn’t work. Too much of the play’s structure depends on a society which is working, and which only goes into meltdown because of Macbeth’s murderous act; the ripples of deceit and terror spread outwards, catching everyone in their grip. If the basis for this meltdown is climate change, then the significance of Macbeth’s choices is lessened, and the contrast with the reign of the ‘good’ king Duncan becomes irrelevant. Even so, had the dialogue been delivered better instead of via bellowing, and more thought been given to the staging in some places, this might have been an interesting side light on this troubling play. Too bad they missed the opportunity.
Despite these constraints, James McAvoy’s performance was good enough to confirm his talent on stage as well as screen, and we’d be happy to see him again in a (hopefully) better production.