By William Shakespeare
Company: Tobacco Factory Theatres
Director: Adele Thomas
Venue: Tobacco Factory
Date: Tuesday 6th March 2018
This is the first Shakespeare production by the Tobacco Factory Theatres Company. It fills the slot previously occupied by the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company (STF), who are now doing their productions in the autumn, but our main reason for wanting to see this particular Macbeth was the advance information we got last year at the RSC’s Summer School that Katy Stephens would be playing Lady Macbeth! Made this a must-see.
The layout was as usual; although work is ongoing to change the access to the theatre, we went in through the same entrance as before, past the bar. We spotted the first aspect of the design very quickly: a thick layer of rubber marbles coated the floor, making it tricky getting to our seats. The marbles were everywhere – and would spread even further afield, if past experience was anything to go by – including under our seats, so jackets were definitely on laps for this performance. The pillars were painted plain black to match the floor, and the only relief from this monotony was a small white box, perched on top of a small mound of marbles in the middle of the stage. The box glowed with a flickering white light, and there were harsh LED lights and area lighting around the space. All of this was accompanied by droning music – not the worst we’ve heard, so we kept our hopes up. There was a fairly good attendance, though not completely full, and we were on the right side, front row by an aisle.
I’d spotted from the A4 sheet that was the program/cast list that someone had done the Gaelic translation, and mentioned this to Steve, which was just as well. After the main lights went down there were some swirling flickers of light and three women in white robes came on stage, standing in the entrances. They each wore a gauzy cloth over their faces, masking their identities but not obscuring their dialogue, although as they spoke in Gaelic we hadn’t a clue what they were saying. Well actually, given our familiarity with the play, we had a pretty good idea what they were saying: how the non-Gaelic speakers who were new to the play coped with this introduction I’ve no idea.
The three women walked over to the flickering cube and one of them picked it up. After some more dialogue, they carried the cube off to allow Duncan to hear the story of the battle (in English – yay!) from the “bloody man”. Not sure who was playing the soldier in question, but from his vigorous twitching I would suggest he wasn’t nearly at death’s door. His movements distracted me a bit, although again I’m familiar enough with the story not to need all the details.
I couldn’t tell from the opening scene, but by now it was clear that the costumes were relatively modern, with hints of the 1950s perhaps, and even earlier in the military uniforms. Duncan wore a dark crimson, almost purple, colour which from later scenes was clearly the royal colour: Macbeth used it once he was crowned. Others wore more generalised outfits, but all fitting in with the idea of an older time.
A messenger arrived, and we later discovered that almost all of the ‘other’ male roles had been combined in the person of Ross, a handy choice. This Ross was remarkably clean and carried a folder, which suggested he was one of the HQ boys who spent all day passing papers around instead of a front-line officer. As it happened, he carried the folder throughout the play, and referred to it a number of times, from which we soon realised that he was a substitute for the original actor: checking the cast list later confirmed this, although only because we knew he wasn’t Mark Letheren. According to the website, the part is now played by Kirris Riviere – haven’t seen him before, so can’t confirm it’s the same man, but it’s likely. Hopefully the program will be updated for future visitors.
The witches were back on to greet Macbeth and Banquo, with two of them holding a finger to their lips as described in the dialogue while the third held the cube. All three were still wearing their cloth masks. The lights flickered again during their greetings – take it as read from now on that any involvement by the supernatural forces made the lights flicker; it’ll save precious typing time – and then Ross was on again with his folder to give Macbeth the good news. After some pondering on the situation, they left to meet the king.
Duncan entered with few attendants – one of the downsides to a smaller production – and his “he was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust” registered clearly, an important point for the later scene in England. He greeted Macbeth warmly, and I felt they rather downplayed Macbeth’s anticipation when Duncan announced that his heir would be Malcolm. We could see that Macbeth was ticked off, fair enough, but there’s more to get from that scene yet.
Off to Inverness, and our first eagerly awaited encounter with Lady Macbeth. Katy came on with the letter from Macbeth, folded over. She leaned against the far right pillar and sank down to her haunches as she read it out loud. Her excitement rose as she read on – this was the first time she’d read this letter – and then she began her commentary on Macbeth’s character. She jumped a little when the servant came on, but recovered well, and for the invocation section she knelt down in the middle of the stage and swept the marbles aside to create a basin area. Then, standing to one side, she raised her arms and brought her hands down over her breasts before beginning “come, you spirits”. It was an excellent beginning for this character, showing us her determination to make her husband king regardless of any moral considerations. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to get in her way.
When Macbeth arrived, they embraced and ended up in a clinch on the ground. After they left, with Lady Macbeth clearly taking the lead in their plotting, Duncan and the others arrived to give their TripAdvisor report. Fleance was easy to spot – a young boy, with Banquo – and he was carrying a small white box with a ribbon and a bow, a present for Lady Macbeth presumably. Indeed, when she came on, now in a red dress, he ran to her, gave her a hug and then the box, both of which she graciously accepted, making a fuss of him as she did so. She seemed distracted when delivering her lines to Duncan, though, and I wasn’t sure what that was meant to convey. Still too busy thinking about the possibilities for murder? In any case, with Duncan’s “conduct me to mine host”, she collected her wits and became the confident hostess again. Thrusting the box back into Fleance’s hands, she stepped forward to escort Duncan into their castle, and ignored the young boy completely as she and the king swept past. Fleance was very unhappy at this treatment. Banquo came over to him and was clearly helping his son to get over his disappointment as they followed the royal party off stage.
Next up was Macbeth’s soliloquy debating the pros and cons of murdering Duncan. I haven’t mentioned Jonathan McGuinness’ portrayal of the lead character so far, and I don’t wish to criticise actors unduly, but I did find his performance rather amateurish tonight. Most of the cast managed their dialogue very well, but there were a few, and Jonathan was one of them, who showed the symptoms of a lack of confidence in performing Shakespearean roles. Even though Jonathan has worked at the RSC, the delivery of his lines was accompanied by a kind of unsynchronised arm-waving which tends to signify that an actor doesn’t know what to do with his body during his speeches. In our experience, this is usually caused by a sense of discomfort with the role, especially in Shakespeare, and ideally the director would be giving the actors some support to get them through this. It’s early days for this company and this production, so hopefully the proficiency of the rest of the cast will help those who need some support to develop a more natural way of behaving, which would improve the production significantly.
Fortunately, Lady Macbeth was soon back on stage again, so my attention was directed elsewhere. Her powers of persuasion were magnificent: she bent that man to her will like Barbara Woodhouse correcting the behaviour of an errant puppy, and he finally matched her resolve with his own.
Fleance and Banquo came on after they left. I forget why, but Fleance was standing on a chair to begin with. Banquo gave him his dagger and a sip of his beer, and then Macbeth came on to have his little chat. Left alone, he spoke of the imaginary dagger, and this speech worked pretty well. With Macbeth off to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth returned, and was clearly finding this murder business much to her liking. She was prowling very sensually round the stage, and although she was easily startled by the noises, she quickly recovered to give Macbeth a right telling off. What a disappointment he was: couldn’t keep his thoughts hidden, worried about killing his king, brought the daggers back with him. If you want a job done properly… Mind you, I noticed that she’d avoided killing Duncan herself.
The knocking was VERY LOUD, and could quite easily have woken Duncan, even post-murder. It went on for some time, too, which made for a tense situation as Lady Macbeth struggled to get her husband off stage and into the safety of their own bedroom. As they went out, the porter came in. I’m fine with regendering – there aren’t enough parts for women in Shakespeare as is – and so having one of the female actors playing the porter was hunky-dory. This portrayal was reminiscent of Malvolio at his most unbending, however, which rather squashed the humour of the part. Dressed formally in a maid’s uniform, Cait Davis looked sternly round at the audience as she gave us the porter’s lines, daring us to laugh as she enumerated the many sinful ways of humankind, or at least as many as she could fit in before the knocking became too much to bear. And indeed there were no laughs at all – I blame the director.
With Macduff on stage, she became a bit funnier, and even got a minor laugh for her joke about lechery, but this was definitely not the right characterisation for the part. It left us so unprepared for humour that Macbeth’s “’twas a rough night” hardly got a glimmer of a chuckle.
When Macduff came back on to announce Duncan’s murder and raise the alarm, a red light began flashing. Malcolm was the only brother to turn up, and although I thought Macbeth was doing quite a good job of excusing his killing of the grooms, Lady Macbeth still staggered towards Macduff and collapsed, forcing him to catch her. Malcolm’s brief conversation with his brother became a soliloquy, and then Ross had a chat with an old man (Cait Davis again wearing an invalid’s breathing tube and a large great coat). Macduff’s suspicion shone through his brief conversation with this pair, and then we were back to the happy couple post-coronation.
Lady Macbeth was now wearing a white suit, more suitable for a wedding than a coronation, and looking very happy with life. Macbeth was in a sombre red outfit, the colour previously worn by Duncan. After discovering Banquo’s plans, Macbeth ordered the court (all three of them) to leave, and Lady Macbeth was seriously disconcerted when she realised that the order applied to her as well. The two murderers – no cutbacks there – wore dark suits, and one of them (Simon Armstrong) carried a holdall. His silence, together with his stillness, seemed more menacing than the other chap’s movements and speech. We got to know him later as Seaton, and he was just as creepy then.
A stack of white gift boxes were placed by the front left pillar, with Lady Macbeth taking a seat back right, still in her white outfit. A maid brought on another box and held it out to her: she almost snatched it from the maid’s hands. She wasn’t looking happy this time, the seeds of doubt starting to gnaw away at her. When Macbeth came on, she did her best to cheer him up, but he was still obsessed with Banquo’s murder and hardly seemed to listen to her. The balance of power in their relationship was clearly shifting, and Lady Macbeth was unsettled as she realised that things were getting worse, not better. She gave Macbeth the gift box as part of her efforts at consolation, but he threw it onto the stack. When he finally went into his own invocation, “come, seeling night”, unconsciously mirroring her earlier one, she was absolutely horrified, recognising how far he’d sunk into darkness.
One of the maids joined the two murderers for one of the briskest killings of Banquo and Fleance I’ve ever seen. After exchanging a very few words, the murderers put their lights out – there was a light coming from the far left entrance – and when Banquo and his son came on, one of the murderers attacked Banquo and we were plunged into darkness. I assume Fleance fled the scene, according to Banquo’s last instruction, but I couldn’t see anything for a few moments. When the lights came back up, Banquo was dead on the ground and the murderers were unhappy about their lights being put out. It all took less time to do than to type (or, probably, read), and with the lights flickering again, Banquo got up and obligingly walked off.
Still under the flicker, the tables were brought on for the banquet. Three smaller tables were placed end to end down the right side of the centre area. With their relatively modern trimmings, it reminded me very much of the post-dinner scene in Othello last year at this venue. Pewter goblets and plates were available, and with such a small court, they only needed two chairs on each side and one at each end. The murderous maid poured the wine, and missed the cup she was pouring into when Macbeth reacted strongly to the news of Fleance’s escape. Seaton was the man who reported the news, possibly still carrying the bag. When Banquo came on in response to the toast, he wore a red cloth over his face and there was blood on his shirt – not the messiest ghost we’ve seen, thankfully. He rose and left at the appropriate moment but returned for his second visitation carrying the light box. This time he stood in the entrance while Macbeth ranted and raved, and Lady Macbeth was noticeably struggling to keep it all together. Her “you have displaced the mirth” got a chuckle, and I had a momentary glimpse of this scene as an episode of Come Dine With Me from hell. Lights. Interval.
The break gave the crew a chance to clear the banquet debris off the stage and plant some items for later discovery (see below). We discussed the play, but also the way the layer of marbles under our seats was making them unusually uncomfortable. Despite the short running time (two hours thirty including interval) this became a bit of a problem during the second half, but fortunately it didn’t get in the way of our enjoyment too much.
Lights out for the restart, then three strong lights on each of the witches, one carrying the box. They spoke Gaelic again, most inconsiderate, but Macbeth didn’t seem to mind. When he challenged them to answer his questions, one witch crawled over to the far right pillar and excavated a bag containing something bloody from near its base, with the witch herself speaking the apparition’s lines. The second ‘apparition’ was scooped up from the far left pillar, possibly a dead baby, and for the third apparition we had the young boy with a cloth over his face. He held out something, which I couldn’t see for a pillar, while the witch again spoke the lines. Banquo walked across the stage for the final vision, still with the red cloth over his face and followed by others of the cast with white face-coverings. Given the small numbers, and the distance they had to cover to come round again, the line was rather straggly and became a bit absurd by the end with such long pauses between groups.
After Macbeth left to deal with MacDuff’s flight, Lady MacDuff and her one son, the same boy who had played Fleance, came on stage. I was pleasantly surprised by this scene: the young lad said his lines very well, not just clearly but with some meaning to them. Ross was with them initially, but soon left, and a maid brought the warning to flee. Seaton, with bag, came on and young MacDuff ran to attack him, but the boy was quickly dispatched by Seaton’s dagger.
Lights out, and everyone off – this was another quick scene – and after some ringing sounds the lights came back up on Malcolm and MacDuff. Jack Riddiford was good as Malcolm, bringing out the contrast between his own subtle probing of MacDuff’s motives and Duncan’s earlier “absolute trust” in the man who would betray him: his son had learned a valuable lesson. I’m never entirely convinced by his assertion “my first false-speaking was this upon myself” – how did he get so good at it then? – but this Malcolm seemed reasonably straightforward rather than saintly. Ross brought the news of MacDuff’s family, and there was some reaction, but not as much as I would have liked.
The doctor and the maid came on next, with the doctor wearing a black pullover and trousers, giving him a suitably professional and non-military look within this society. I don’t usually look forward to this scene, but tonight I was keen to see Katy’s final appearance in the play. She came on rubbing her hands together, then against a pillar and finally scrabbling in the marbles. Her hand went towards her crotch for “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, and for her final “come, come, come…”, which reads like an instruction to Macbeth, she stood and raised her hands again, recalling her invocation in her first scene, saying the words very quietly at first as she ran her hands down her front and over her breasts. She seemed to be reliving her involvement in the play backwards in time, and her performance brought that out beautifully. At the end, she was standing by the far left pillar with the other two looking at her – couldn’t see their faces, so I don’t know what their expressions were like. But I could see Lady Macbeth, and as she finished her lines, she appeared to wake up, looking from the maid to the doctor, confused to find herself out of bed, fearful for what she might have said in her waking-sleep, and seeing from their faces that she had “spoke what she should not”. (On the other hand, Steve reckoned she was still asleep, but I enjoyed my version of events so much, I’m sticking with it.) She then staggered off to bed, deeply disturbed.
The doctor remained to deliver his report to Macbeth, who came on polishing his dagger. There was a bowl in the middle of the stage surrounded by several other daggers – no idea why. Seaton came on to bring Macbeth his military jacket – “armour” – which Macbeth put on and then took off. He had an object hanging on a chain round his neck and took it out and kissed it. Then he took it off and opened the phial to pour out some blood and smear it over himself. This was completely unintelligible to me, but presumably it meant something to the actor. When Macbeth left, the bowl and daggers were also removed – we suspect this was one bit of staging which worked better in rehearsals than it did tonight on stage.
The vast English force, led by Malcolm, marched through Birnam Wood… All right, three men walked across the stage as the order was given to “let every soldier hew him down a bough and bear’t before him”, which was about as brief as it could possibly be, and then Macbeth came on with his hands still bloody to receive the news, first of his wife’s death and then of Birnam Wood’s mass trespass. From “at least we’ll die with harness on our back” they went immediately to MacDuff’s arrival and “turn hellhound”, and into their fight. It was a lively tussle, and a bit of rubber hit me on the arm, while Steve was also under fire. (That’s the danger of front-row seats.)
Macbeth was winning easily, and even MacDuff’s revelation of his own unusual birth didn’t daunt his opponent. MacDuff was down and Macbeth was strangling him, when the witches arrived carrying the box. Macbeth saw them, and when the cover was taken off the box, revealing something I couldn’t see properly, he gave up and just stood with his arms open. MacDuff looked round, but couldn’t see the witches, and having taken out his knife, stabbed Macbeth. Lights.
Malcolm and Ross entered when the lights came back up, and were soon joined by MacDuff, who carried a plastic bag with Macbeth’s head in it plus lots of blood. Malcom took the bag off with him, and before MacDuff left, he spotted the young boy at the other side of the stage. MacDuff tossed his knife to the ground and left, while the boy came forward, picked up the knife and began playing with it – mock fighting and such. Then the three witches came back on with the box, covered again, and he went towards them as they walked forward, holding the knife in front of him. Lights. The end.
This was certainly one of the shortest versions of this play which I’ve seen, and while I didn’t care for some aspects of the staging, on the whole it was a well-focused interpretation which told the story clearly and with some lovely performances to savour. Given that this was relatively early in the run, and especially since one of the actors had been replaced at short notice, we made plenty of allowance for the weaker areas of the production and would expect it to improve. We gave it a balanced rating of 6/10 overall, while Katy on her own would have rated at least 8/10.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me