A New World – September 2009

3/10

By Trevor Griffiths

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 1st September 2009

This was one of those new plays the Globe likes to put on which is supposed to make use of the large stage to address ‘big’ topics – the epic sweep of historical movements being a particular favourite. Unfortunately, these can end up as little more than staged versions of a docu-drama which would be better served by a film or TV mini-series. And so it was today.

The subject matter, the life and works of Thomas Paine (a more apt name for the man can scarcely be imagined) is worthy enough, and even interesting in its own way, but the style of presentation was the usual snippet, snippet, slightly larger snippet, snippet, quick one liner in passing, snippet, snippet, snippet….. No chance to develop characters nor to give any depth to the material being covered, such was the vast scope of the story, encompassing as it did the American War of Independence (we lost) and the French Revolution followed by the Terror (we didn’t much like the winners).

This sense of attending an overlong history lesson was compounded by the costumes – the usual period drab – making it hard to tell when some actors were playing different characters, and the usual loss of a fair chunk of the dialogue was naturally more of a problem with an unknown play than one of Will’s. The ‘trundle’ effect was in full force again, with all sorts of paraphernalia being trundled on and trundled back off again, all very distracting even when covered by a song. The opening sequence was distracting too, with lots of the cast trooping on in several waves during the opening exposition, taking both my eye and my ear off the ball, so to speak.

The play was narrated by Benjamin Franklin, obligingly continuing even after his own death as he himself commented in one of the more humorous bits. To be fair, there was quite a lot of humour throughout, and but for missing the lines I might have laughed a lot more. I suspect there was even more humour which just didn’t come across, but in any case it didn’t make up for the tedious bits.

The story began with Paine’s journey to America and took us through to his funeral, including both of the aforementioned revolutions and a few other bits and bobs. Having seen We, The People and the recent mini-series on John Adams, I found most of this was familiar territory; from a different perspective admittedly but without a great deal of added value. It’s a fascinating period of history in many ways, and yet I’ve still to see any drama set in that time that doesn’t make it seem dull. Comparing this with other plays that do handle history better, by Will and others, I find they usually focus on the personal to help us engage with the characters emotionally, and the recitation of facts is either kept to a minimum or skilfully woven into the fabric of the play. Show, don’t tell. Longer scenes build the momentum, and fortunately some playwrights have no compunction about tinkering with historical accuracy to suit the needs of the drama. (Actually I’m thinking of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, but you can insert whichever example you like.)

Having said all this, I must praise the cast for turning in splendid performances all round, even of the one-legged variety. The music and singing were lovely, and I particularly liked an impassioned speech, in French, by James Garnon as Danton. The on stage translation for Paine’s benefit was a bit distracting (too much historical accuracy?) but once I managed to ignore that, it was good fun to watch Danton rebel-rouse, especially at the end when he suddenly turned all RP on recognising Paine.

So, not a great success from my point of view, and I do hope they can find some better new writing to put on here in future.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

When The Rain Stops Falling – June 2009

3/10

By Andrew Bovell

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 6th June 2009

This was slightly disappointing. A new play from an Australian writer, and with two Aussie cast members (one of whom was actually in a cast!); this could have been much more powerful and moving. I’m glad the Almeida is prepared to try something like this from the other side of the world, I’d just prefer that it be of better quality.

The story spans past and future, from 1959 to 2039, and concerns four generations of a family where the fathers keep running out on their sons, although to be fair Gabriel 1 wasn’t planning to kill himself in a car crash shortly after getting his recently acquired girlfriend pregnant. And his dad, Henry, didn’t run off so much as he was told to go by his wife, once she found out about his sexual preference for young boys and with their son being only seven and already featuring in his dad’s hidden photo album.

Said father scarpers off to Australia where a young boy goes missing, with only his shoe being found on the beach. His mother kills herself when his body is found, while his father holds on for a number of years until the dead boy’s sister is old enough to look after herself. She is the recently acquired girlfriend, also called Gabrielle, discovered while Gabriel 1 is searching for some clues to his father’s character and disappearance, and it’s her putting two and two together that causes the fatal crash.

Her son, Gabriel 2, also leaves his wife when his son is little, and in 2039 he gets a call from his son who wants to meet up. This meeting is the final scene of the play, where Gabriel 2 gives his son a collection of items left by his mother about which he knows very little, but which we have seen feature strongly throughout the story.

The play starts with Gabriel 2 standing in the rain with lots of other people rushing past him. Then something drops down from the sky, and the lights go out. When they come back up, Gabriel 2 gives us the story of his son calling him, how he couldn’t talk to him, then had to call him back. He invited his son for lunch then realises he hasn’t got anything to eat, so goes out in the rain and ends up with the fish. Fish have apparently died out by 2039, so it’s more than unusual for one to land at someone’s feet miles from the sea.

Then we see the overlapping generations. Each person arrives in the rain, hangs up their umbrella and coat, goes to look out of the window, heads round the table and off the stage, then comes to the table to take some soup from a large tureen and sit down to eat it. Once everyone is present, they develop a rhythm – synchronised eating – and then they leave so we can see the first scene between Gabriel 1 and his mother.

From here the story is told in different time frames, with the year and place usually being projected onto the screens at the back. There are scenes between a young Elizabeth and her paedophile husband in 1959 and onwards, scenes from 1988 between Gabriel 1 and his mother Elizabeth, now much older and given to drink, scenes between Gabriel 1 and the young Gabrielle, also from 1988, and scenes between Joe and the older Gabrielle from 2013, as well as the start and end scenes from 2039.

This jumping about wasn’t too confusing for either of us (despite comments to that effect overheard by Steve) but it did make it harder to get into the play and to care about the characters. The paedophilia was well signposted, as was the connection between Henry’s disappearance and the murder of the young boy. So there were few surprises and not a lot of insight into the human condition. Nor was there much humour, and when you’re asking an audience to sit for a bum-numbing two hours without an interval, you could at least give us some fun to take our minds off the agony. The set was necessarily sparse although I’m not convinced it had to be so bleak. There was the table, a bench seat and two chairs to the left of the stage, and some hooks lowered down on the right for the coats and umbrellas. A bench also appeared on the right side occasionally but apart from that I don’t remember any furniture. The screens at the back were mainly blank and dark, but they did show time and place information and on Uluru they showed stars and snow.

The main problem for me was the unbelievability of it all. I don’t mind surreal or symbolic touches, but the repetition of the fish motif and one or two other tropes didn’t do anything for me. Perhaps these things mean more in Australian culture. Several characters repeated a long-winded story about cleaning a room from top to bottom, but finding it just as grubby as when they started. What was that about? I have great respect for the hard work the actors put in, and gratitude for Leah Purcell, who played the part of the older Gabrielle with her leg in a cast, but apart from that, why bother? Not the Almeida’s best find by a long way.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dimetos – April 2009

3/10

By Athol Fugard

Directed by Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 16th April 2009

This was disappointing. The performances were fine, but neither Steve nor I could find much of interest in the play itself. I dozed a bit in the first half, it was so soporific, but Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much. Even though we were well round the side, we don’t think that affected our enjoyment that much, although we would prefer to be more central in future.

The story is absurdly simple. Dimetos is an older man, an engineer, who has left “the city” to live in a remote village. He does very little these days, although the opening of the play is a scene which shows him, with the help of his niece, rescuing a horse which fell into a well. Dimetos’ knowledge of pulleys and the like allows him to construct the necessary equipment to winch the horse out, while his niece Lydia, stripped to her skimpies, is lowered down to put the ropes round the horse, played by Alex Lanipekun. It’s an effective scene, though too long, and after that it’s all downhill.

Dimetos has a housekeeper, Sophia, and the quartet of characters is completed by Danilo, a visitor from the city, who tries to persuade Dimetos to return to help out with all the engineering challenges the city dwellers are facing with an ever-growing population. Dimetos gets him to stay by agreeing to consider his proposal, but then arranges for him to be alone with Lydia a lot, and the inevitable happens. He falls for her (she’s an attractive young lady), and that leads to a clumsy attempt to have sex which she repulses. After Sophia has been unsympathetic, and Dimetos reveals his own passionate feelings towards her, Lydia chooses to hang herself rather than go on living.

Finally Dimetos is tracked down to his even remoter hideaway by Danilo, and after their confrontation, Dimetos suffers a mental breakdown, which resolves itself into a story about a man dreaming he’s a horse who gets trapped down a hole, etc. In the process the few props get thrown around the set, leaving quite a mess for the stage crew to clean up, but without actually creating anything interesting to watch. The final image is of Dimetos holding out his hands, waiting to receive whatever the universe, or the gods, give him.

This is an attempt to do an updated Greek tragedy, but it doesn’t work on so many levels. The language was uninspiring (soporific, as I mentioned earlier), the characters didn’t involve me at all, there were no interesting discussions of any of the issues raised in the play – incestuous feelings, the overcrowding and excessive use of resources in modern societies, etc – the plot was predictable and dull, and only the performances made it remotely watchable. The relationships between the characters came across clearly, and I got the impression that the actors knew what the piece was about, but sadly the production didn’t include us in that awareness. Not one I’d rush to see again, although I wouldn’t completely rule out another viewing of a different production.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Doctor In The House – April 2008

3/10

By Ted Willis, from the novels by Richard Gordon

Directed by Bruce James

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th April 2008

I only managed the first half of this – I had some digestive trouble and couldn’t relax and enjoy myself, so it seemed better to head home. Steve stayed for the rest, and gave me feedback later. 3/10 was my rating for the first half, though as I wasn’t feeling so good, that may have been a bit mean. Steve reckoned a lowish 5/10 though, so perhaps I wasn’t so far off.

We are both familiar with the Doctor in the House storyline, and there was nothing new here. To put it on the stage, all the action was set in the flat that the students were sharing, which meant that the surgery “sketch” had to become a demonstration in the flat. Nothing wrong with that, but the material did seem dated and rather flat.

Whether this was accurate or not, it certainly seemed to be the opinion of the director, and possibly the cast as well. Steve described it as the “Morecambe and Wise” version of the story. The cast mainly got their laughs by making deliberate mistakes, fluffs, etc., and apparently ad libbing to the audience. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it looked to both of us early on that it was planned rather than accidental. For example, Simon Sparrow was using a microscope at one point, and a piece came off and rolled onto the floor. Fine, he came and got it, making a suitable funny comment, but then he kept playing with it. Whenever there’s a genuine mistake like that, the actors usually leave well alone, so it was pretty clear that this was a setup. Confirmation came when the performance ended on the button – no chance of that if they’d really been screwing up that much.

Having said this, the performances were very good. Damian Williams as Simon Sparrow did most of the fooling around, and did it very well. Eric Potts, one of our favourites, was playing Sir Launcelot Sprat, and although he was a bit too much on the cuddly side at times to strike fear into anyone, he was still very entertaining. The play was framed by the device of asking if there was a doctor in the house, as the leading lady had had an accident. Two doctors responded – two of the cast – and they started reminiscing about their time together as students. Cue the flashback. James Campbell as Grimsdyke did the occasional narration piece during the play, between scenes, and also finished it off, but there was nothing much to it other than emphasising that the action takes place in the 1950s, and allowing the numerous asides to the audience to fit in more comfortably. It’s a good enough device, and the performances were good, but there was one big drawback. The asides and funny business, while entertaining, tended to point out how unfunny most of the actual dialogue was. I certainly found the fooling around more fun than the play itself. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for me in my condition, and might not have been enough even if I’d been in top form. However, I’m happy to give the play the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if it had been done with more enthusiasm for the original piece, I might have enjoyed it a lot more.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – July 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Wilson Milam

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 17th july 2007

At least this was the actual play that we ascribe to Shakespeare! On that score, it was a huge improvement on the Complete Works version. The problems here were mainly lack of clarity and projection, coupled with a staging that led to the majority of the important bits being spoken while the actors involved had their backs to us. I found I could only make out about a third of the lines – and that’s being generous. However, there were quite a few good points to praise.

One of the best was the part of Rodorigo, played by Sam Crane. He gave a beautifully detailed performance as the gullible, romantic, besotted fool, whom Iago easily parted from his money. To paraphrase how Steve saw it, this man had “loser” tattooed on his forehead at birth. He pouted, he snivelled, he flounced out, he despaired, he enthused, he did everything with such total presence that I can safely say this was the best Rodrigo we’re ever likely to get.

Another good performance came from Paul Lloyd as Othello’s servant, known to those of us who read programs as Clown. He kept up a running battle with the musicians, from the pre-opening where he attempts to make his “turn off your mobile phones”, etc. speech, through telling them to play the silent pieces only, and even after the interval, where they’re sitting on his basking spot. There wasn’t much to this part, but he gave us more than was there. Of course, the musicians fought back, and didn’t shut up when he yelled at them. His announcement was one of those stop/start duels with a trombonist that set us up nicely for the play itself, which is, after all, pretty dark.

Other than these, the performances were fine, but nothing special. Eamonn Walker as Othello wasn’t so clear as the others, and Tim McInnerny as Iago had that phlegm buzz to his voice when he upped the volume that made it harder to distinguish the words. Apart from that, I could hear most of the lines provided the actors weren’t pointed away from us, but as I said earlier, that happened rather too much for my liking. A lot of the staging seemed very static compared with other plays we’ve seen on this stage, and while that may be partly down to the play itself, I’m sure more could have been done to vary the actors’ movements.

Other points I noticed were that Cassio assumes Othello will send him to fetch Desdemona, and is effectively ignored by Othello when he sends Iago instead. Desdemona’s speech about the different loves she has for father and husband is equally applicable to Cordelia’s situation, and I found myself spotting several echoes of other plays. Amelia’s condemnation of men’s behaviour was roundly delivered, although the resulting mood change back to Desdemona’s sadness was a bit jarring.

The drinking scene was well done. The men sat round a table, and Iago leapt up onto his bench to sing a couple of silly songs, in English, apparently. The fights were good, and the scene where Rodrigo tries to kill Cassio was superb. They played it as if in a blackout (the wind was so strong at times that various lanterns and torches blew out anyway), so the fight was a slow motion grope rather than cut and thrust. Very entertaining. The final dance was also good fun, especially as Iago refused to join in, apart from a possible twitch of the shoulders at the end?

There were some other distractions that took my attention away from the stage, such as a flash going off, and one of the stewards in front of the stage doing some gesturing to another steward while Iago was giving us one of his scheming soliloquies. Most unfortunate timing. Also, the number of people coming and going was higher than last week, and as the door was right behind us, we were treated to a fair number of squeals and clatters during the play.

All in all, I was mostly not engaged by this production, but I’m glad I saw the good bits.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pete & Dud: Come Again – June 2007

3/10

By: Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde

Directed by: Owen Lewis

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th June 2007

This performance suffered from a number of factors. Firstly, the audience was as sparse as I’ve seen in the Connaught for a long while. They normally get better attendances than this, but tonight there was very little atmosphere from our side of the curtain. Secondly, the comedy material in the show was not really designed to get the audience involved. The Morecambe and Wise tribute show, The Play What I Wrote, is the opposite of this. They did their time learning how to get an audience on their side, and the material in that show gives the actors plenty of opportunity to interact with the crowd. But the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore stuff is at the start of alternative comedy – satirical and surreal – so it’s more up to the audience to get themselves involved, and if they’re not interested, tough.

Thirdly, the structure of the show didn’t help too much, either. It was done as a chat show from the 80s, with Dudley Moore being interviewed by a combination of Russell Harty and Terry Wogan, and Peter Cook showing up part-way through. We got flashbacks of their days with Beyond the Fringe, etc, so we did get to see a fair bit of their material, but we also got snippets of behind the scenes stuff. I felt this made the whole evening rather clunky. To get into the flashback, they had to get props, etc, and while the set was well constructed to allow for all the different settings, it did limit their movements. Also, the need to dispose of the props, hats, and the rest, after the flashback, meant there were longer gaps than I would have liked between scenes.

Finally, the contents of the play are well known, and have already been explored well on TV, so it’s hard to know just who this play was intended for. Aficionados of their work would only get a modest amount of the humour presented to them, and the darker side of their relationship wasn’t explored in enough depth to be really satisfying.

What did I like? Well, the performances were good enough, and some of the sketches were still fun to see, although it’s very difficult to impersonate such a one-off as Peter Cook effectively. I did like the way that neither Pete nor Dud was made the scapegoat for the problems in their relationship. The various TV programs I’ve seen about them often seem to take one side or the other, but while there’s no doubt that in his later years the drinking made Peter Cook a difficult man to deal with, it’s also likely that there were other factors as well. So well done for keeping a balance. I also liked the way the action often contradicted what was being said on the chat show.

All in all, I was glad when it ended, though I hope it has better luck and bigger audiences for the rest of its run.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conall Morrison

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2007

I found this a very ramshackle production. There were some interesting ideas, and some good performances, but it didn’t work satisfactorily as a whole. I felt disinterested and often bored, which I don’t experience too often at the RSC.

There was a scene inserted at the start which I presume was intended to give focus and meaning to the whole production. To begin with, there were a number of chairs placed on the stage in rows, with one on its side. At the start, the doors at the back opened, and with much screaming, yelling and clashing of swords, various people rushed onto the stage, some pulling carts. The men grabbed the chairs, and piled them up as a barricade against the doors, while the women got the wagons into a circle… sorry, wrong genre. The women hid behind the carts as best they could. To no avail. The marauding forces under Macbeth forced the doors open, and Macbeth himself took on and killed the men, then turned his attention to the women and children. We could see he was barely alive, in that his humanity had been squashed out of sight by all the killing he had endured, and although he held one of the babies quite tenderly for a while, he still wrung its neck without compassion.

It was a powerful scene, and in many ways it promised well for the rest of the performance, but even so, I found myself wondering, in the midst of all this emotive force, where does he go from here? This Macbeth has none of “the milk of human kindness” left in him. There’s nothing in his life but senseless slaughter – he’s an empty shell. He’s already at “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”, yet the rest of us are three hours away from it. It would take some masterstroke to connect the dots to give us a satisfying explanation of this character’s journey from here, and sadly, we didn’t get one. There were some good bits to the central performance, true, but overall the range was limited and the verse-speaking not quite up to the job. Lots of energy, but not enough detail – “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The opening scene hadn’t quite finished, however. The three women that Macbeth had killed, jerked alive again after he’d gone. I had suspected this might happen – come on, three women, in Macbeth, can’t just be coincidence. Sure enough, these lately deceased became the three weird sisters, and their motivation was plain and stark – they wanted revenge for their slaughtered children. Steve saw them as avenging angels, though not necessarily heavenly ones, and that’s a good image. They thoughtfully removed the bodies, which allowed the rest of the action to continue, but they did linger over it, and I felt the first intimations of the boredom that was to become all too familiar during the evening.

Next up was the pirate king. You don’t remember him from Macbeth? Well, he’s called Duncan, and David Troughton played him in what Steve reckoned was a West Country accent with Scottish moments, long straggly hair, and a leather coat. What else were we meant to think? I had to work hard to stifle a fit of the giggles at this point, because the wounded soldier who arrived to tell the King what had happened was speaking with one of the worst Scots accents I’ve heard in a while. It wasn’t helped by the fact that some of the cast were putting on a Scottish accent, some had Caribbean inflections, the Irish contingent apparently felt their own brogue to be sufficiently Scots-like not to bother, and we had a Welsh second murderer. Most of the black actors chose the West Indian/African route, so it was doubly surprising to hear one of their number attempt a comedy version of the Scottish accent. I barely suppressed my giggles, but suppress them I did. I have no idea why these choices were made – we could tell from the post-show yesterday that the actors mostly weren’t using their own accents, so it had to be a deliberate decision. (At least it helps to explain why David Troughton kept correcting himself when referring to “English” actors in the post-show.)

The scene where the three witches greet Macbeth was fine, nothing special to report. The women left through the back door, which Macbeth and Banquo were apparently oblivious to. Likewise the arrival of Ross and Angus to inform Macbeth that the first prophecy has come true was also OK, but added nothing to my understanding of the play. Duncan’s thanks to Macbeth and Banquo were fine, and Macbeth did at least register well his shock at hearing Malcolm created heir to the throne.

I’ve never quite understood exactly when Macbeth wrote the letter he sends to Lady Macbeth. He’s riding furiously to prepare for Duncan’s arrival chez lui, yet he manages to knock off a reasonably lengthy letter (Lady Macbeth is obviously part-way through when we first see her), and the postman’s quicker than he is. This is one time when text-messaging would seem to be the answer, but sadly they didn’t have it in those days. Anyway, next up was Lady Macbeth and the letter, and boy, was she good. Derbhle Crotty managed to get across a sense of an ordinary woman gone seriously bad. No histrionics, nothing over the top, just plain negativity focused and concentrated. Her invocation was very grounded and, as she spoke her final lines, and with Macbeth appearing in the doorway behind her, she froze with her eyes wide and staring, as if her later madness was already within her. Which of course it was.

Duncan’s arrival was again average, and this time my view of Lady Macbeth was blocked by all the entourage standing about, so I felt my attention slipping again. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done” was OK, but with one very good piece of interpretation, given this production’s focus on the personal: for “we still have judgement here”, there was a long pause before the “here”, and as he said it, he placed his right hand on his heart, indicating that his own conscience was what he meant, rather than the usual reference to the world in general. That I liked very much.

Again, there was the difficulty from the opening scene in getting to grips with how Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan. From Terminator-like assassin, he’d become a picky wimp, and she had to work hard to get him to change his mind. Frankly, I didn’t think she’d manage it, good though her performance was, but then I wasn’t buying much of Macbeth’s emotional posturing at this point. However, I did enjoy Derbhle’s performance. She managed to be hard as nails, yet a little nervy with it, taking us a bit further along Lady Macbeth’s descent into hell.

The opening to the next scene, Banquo’s arrival leading into the dagger speech, was a bit hesitant. The language didn’t seem to come across too well, but the arrival of the witches certainly helped. One came on and dropped a dagger onto the stage in perfect time for Macbeth to give his speech. As he went to grab it, she whisked it away, and another of the three, having already come on, dropped another dagger on another part of the stage. And so it went on, a nice piece of staging and perfectly timed, with the last dagger being removed just before “There’s no such thing”. As the bell tolled, he climbed up the ladder to go to Duncan’s room.

Lady Macbeth appeared, and was now showing her nervousness more clearly. Their dialogue was largely lost for me, as it was rushed through so quickly. I know they’re agitated, but there’s no need to lose it altogether. Lady Macbeth might be able to speak brave words to her husband, but her face gave her away when she grabbed the daggers – she wasn’t looking forward to this at all.

The porter was played by all three witches, tossing a pig’s head between them – not a scene that I’ll be fondly remembering anytime soon. The words were too garbled (keen to get past the unintelligible stuff quickly, perhaps?) and the actions not particularly helpful. The one witch who stayed behind to actually talk to Macduff and Lennox was pretty graphic about standing to and not standing to, and really enjoyed her own joke, but it wasn’t the best porter scene I’ve experienced. Of course, they need time for Macbeth to get cleaned up, as he would be back on stage pretty soon to greet Macduff himself. Then we had the discovery of the murder, lots of people rushing on stage in various states of attire, Macbeth admitting to having killed the grooms, and Lady Macbeth throwing up over the top balcony railing, before collapsing and being carried off. As so much was going on, I’m not sure how she was playing that bit; whether it was a device to distract the others from Macbeth’s maladroit justification of his actions, or just because it’s all got too much for her. Anyway, my main thought at this time was a forensic one. Macbeth’s really smart here, because not only has he got rid of two potential witnesses in the grooms, he’s covered up any evidence of him killing Duncan – if the CSI people were to check him for blood, he could always claim he got Duncan’s blood on him from the grooms. When I find myself thinking like this during a performance, it’s not usually a good sign.

The play trundled on in the usual way – I must say, they did at least stick pretty much to the standard version, and after a year of viewing Shakespeare from just about every angle except right way up, this was a pleasant change. Donalbain and Malcolm fled, people chatted about what’s going on, Banquo was getting his hopes up, King Macbeth and his Queen were looking happy with the world, Banquo went off riding, Macbeth invited the murderers onto the stage, the Queen talked with him afterwards, and was even more worried by him not confiding in her, and then the murderers, joined by one of the witches as the third murderer, tackled Banquo and Fleance.

Having a witch as the third murderer worked very well, I thought. Remember, the witches are working to bring down Macbeth, and in this scene she was the one who put out the light, making it harder for the murderers to do their job. If I heard correctly, she told Fleance to flee even before his father did, and although she went after him, she showed no signs of attacking him. This was a good way to interpret the scene, I found – one of the better ways in which the witches were woven into the fabric of the staging.

When Banquo was killed, he was lying to our right, near the front corner of the stage. I remember thinking, that’ll be handy for him when it comes time to join in the feast. Sure enough, when the time came, the weird women helped him up, smeared his face with blood, and placed him in the empty chair. Macbeth freaked out, as usual, and sent him packing, and they took him off. A little later, I noticed the tablecloth twitch a bit, and reckoned he’d be coming up through the trapdoor for his next entrance. Sure enough, he did. Some blood had been dripped over the fruit in the middle of the table, and then he rose up, sending the middle trestle flying, and the food and fruit went everywhere. I took a moment or two to stop a bloody apple from landing in my lap. As Lady Macbeth tried to calm her husband down, off to our left, a grinning Banquo was seated at what remained of the table, and the witches were waving his hand at them. It was both funny and scary – I could understand why Macbeth was freaking out. Unfortunately, he was so upset that he let fly with his hand and swept a cup off the table, so that Steve and I (and people for several rows back) were sprayed with a large amount of fake wine. It was a bit of a shock, as I’m not used to this sort of audience participation, so I really didn’t notice much of the rest of that scene, but it finished pretty soon anyway, and we could begin to clear up the mess. As did the stage staff.

We wiped ourselves down, and Steve went to change the program, as that had been splashed. He likes to keep them, so a clean copy is essential. As he did this, I realised I wasn’t happy sitting there any longer. Rather than just leave (although I was tempted), I asked if there were any other seats available. I must say the RSC staff were very helpful, and it turned out there were tickets for two seats in Row H which hadn’t been collected, so as these seemed perfectly good, we took them. There was more cleaning up to do, but fortunately, we were both wearing red or pink tops (I was in the pink), so the evidence of our splashing was fast disappearing.

I was happy with the change because I had felt too close to the action during the first half. That’s not usually my complaint, but this production had evidently taken “sound and fury” to heart, and there was so much going on at times, and on different parts of the stage, that I was having to look round a lot more than usual to be aware of what was going on. This isn’t a criticism of the staging, as I like productions to use the Swan to the full, but in this case I felt happier being further back, so that I could get a better overview of the action (and no more wine).

Hecate was dropped, as I would expect with this interpretation, and so they restarted with the review of the story when Lennox and another Lord had a little chat. Fortunately, I had been paying attention, so it didn’t matter that this didn’t come across clearly. The witches came on carrying suitacses for their consultation with Macbeth. Instead of the various items they were chanting about, they took dolls and babies’ clothes out of the suitcases to put in the cauldron/pit. I found this very moving. When Macbeth arrived, demanding answers, there was a strange extra section where the witches sat him in a chair, put a bag over his head and then a noose, and proceeded to hang him. Not to death, obviously, but just a bit. Why? Time of the month? No explanation was forthcoming, and it didn’t add to the play for me. They used dolls to represent the various apparitions. To show Banquo’s line, lots of dolls dropped down from the ceiling.

Macduff’s family was next in line to be killed. Again, I found this to be less clear than I’ve seen before, although choosing to show Lady Macduff about eight months gone added to the emotional emphasis on childlessness. One of the three witches came on to advise Lady Macduff to fly, and she was apparently speaking out of turn: the other witches made this clear when they turned up. The killings were added to by the killers raping her, largely out of sight, but still unnecessary, even in this context. I was looking forward to the end already.

About this time I was beginning to despair. I felt I’d lost my ability to keep an open mind, and to adapt to new productions and different ways of doing things. Then I thought back to all the performances we’d seen over the past year, and which I’d written up in these notes. I realised this was just a temporary blip, that actually we’re pretty good at accepting these productions on their own terms, and I felt much better. Thank goodness for this writing – it’s something concrete I can refer back to if I lose track again.

The meeting between Macduff and Malcolm worked better than a lot of the scenes. In particular, the line “He has no children” was fairly howled out by Macduff – very moving. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking confirmed the madness that had been set up earlier and beautifully developed, and was one of the best versions I’ve heard. Then we’re basically into the battle preparation and final fights, and then home. The messenger who came on to tell Macbeth about the forest moving was one of the witches, and she grinned as she left, knowing she’s just told him something fearful. The cry of women was done by the three sisters from the top balcony, and was piercing and eerie. The final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth worked well enough, and so to bed.

As I write this, I feel I haven’t quite done it justice. It wasn’t as boring as it might seem from my terse descriptions, although I don’t regret any of them. The delivery of lines was poorer than I’m used to, and some of the contrived extras – the rape, the hanging – did nothing for me. Having seen all these actors in Macbett the night before, we know they’re all good at their job, so I have to put the problems down entirely to the director and his concept for the piece. The idea of having the three witches as women avenging the deaths of themselves and their children is superficially tempting, but it shifts the balance of the play too much for me. It became partly a revenge drama, rather than a tragedy based on extremes of ambition. I liked the emphasis on inner psychology in places, but then the witches were definitely supernatural, which contradicts that reading a bit. All in all, it was too unbalanced to be really enjoyable, though I will remember some bits with great pleasure.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me