Macbeth – October 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Daniel Evans

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd October 2012

I liked this very much. It was a good straightforward production; the costumes were in period with a modern flavour, but with no guns or other anachronisms, the text was cut, but only to tell the story more clearly, and the delivery of lines was excellent, which was to be expected given this cast. It was also nice to see the ‘ee ba gum’ boys back together again on stage (Andrew Jarvis (Duncan) and John Dougall (Macduff), for those who didn’t see the ESC’s Wars of the Roses).

The set had a large circle of stones laid round the outside of the stage, with gaps left for the entrances. There were concentric rings of paving stones inside these, with gratings round the innermost circle and also just inside the bigger stone ring. I thought these would be for water, but they were mainly for light effects and some smoke. Mind you, there were some pools of water around the outside of the stone circle which came in handy later on. The innermost circle rose up to become the banquet table, and the very centre also sank down to become the cauldron for the witches’ brew. Apart from that, and some seats being brought on and off, the stage was nicely bare.

They started with the three witches, all female, all looking fairly hideous. They could disappear quite quickly with the three exits, and with such short scenes at the start there’s a need to be brisk. The bloody man was just that – plenty of Kensington gore on show – while Duncan was a saintly figure, with white hair and beard and grey robes, looking a bit Gandalf-like. He put his hand or hands on other people’s heads a lot in this production, and the nobility of his character was definitely being emphasised. I did find myself wondering if all was well in the kingdom though; they had just put down one rebellion and here was Macbeth about to have a go. There were clear reactions from the king and his men to the story the bloody man was telling, and to the further news of the Norwegian king’s defeat.

The witches came together on our side of the stage to speak to Macbeth and Banquo, and Macbeth was clearly startled to hear their third greeting. He stayed on the other side of the stage while Banquo chatted up the three witches, so I couldn’t see what he was doing at that point, and as the witches had their backs to us I also couldn’t see their faces so I don’t know if they treated Macbeth and Banquo differently. Only Ross came on afterwards with the message for Macbeth.

When they were welcomed by the court, I noticed how roundabout Macbeth is when responding to Duncan’s praise, whereas Banquo is very direct. When Duncan announced Malcolm would be his heir, Macbeth had already moved a little forward in anticipation, then hung back in disappointment and didn’t clap like the other Scottish lords. Lady Macbeth (Claudie Blakely) was truly surprised to read the royal prophecy, and after being told that the king would be arriving shortly, her reference to “under my battlements” was distinctly creepy, worthy of the horror genre at its best. They used the sound of a raven (I assume) to trigger this line.

Lady Macbeth greeted Duncan graciously, but I could see she was concerned about Macbeth’s absence. Macbeth’s conscience then had a good airing, and he was remarkably resolute against killing Duncan by the time his wife came along. She was full of contempt for his weakness, and he started to waver; when he asked how they would do it she knew she had him. I never like it when Macbeth grabs his wife’s crotch on the line “bring forth men children only”; I know they’re married but it always seems so crass, and tonight was no different.

Banquo had already indicated his relationship with Fleance when giving us the Springwatch speech earlier about birds nesting in the roof. He’d moved Fleance forwards to stand on a stone during it, so when the same character came on with him again we knew who he was. Banquo strapped his sword round his son and gave him a fatherly kiss on the head as well. Macbeth came up behind Fleance in the dark and pretended to strangle him, all in jest of course. Macbeth uses the word “we” during his conversation with Banquo, and I wonder if this is a slip on his part, using the royal “we” before he’s actually king. I didn’t notice any reaction tonight to this word. Instead of a servant, Macbeth sent Fleance with the message to his wife.

Even before Fleance left, Macbeth was looking glassy-eyed into the middle distance. It may be a problem with theatre in the round when Macbeth’s dagger is just in his mind, but it took me a while to realise what he was doing. Once he started moving around a bit it became clearer and the lines themselves came across well. The actual murder and the disjointed dialogue between Macbeth and his wife were good, with Macbeth on the other side of the stage and keeping his back to his wife when he returned with bloody hands, so it would be natural for her not to see that he still had the daggers. When she did realise, she threw her hands up as she indicated them, very angry with him for making the mistake.

The porter was very good. He did the three arrivals in hell very well, standing on the stones as he said the lines, and moving round to a new position each time. His actions became bolder with each one and he stood on two stones for the final one, the equivocator, stepping from one to the other to illustrate the points. Not Adrian Schiller perhaps, but still very good.

When Macbeth turned up to greet Macduff, his hands still looked a little red to me – they say fake blood washes off without leaving a stain, but……. I did think that the stabbing of the grooms would serve a dual purpose here, not only removing the innocent scapegoats but giving Macbeth a reason for having blood on his hands (the Elizabethan equivalent of GSR). Macduff was very subdued when he came out of Duncan’s bedroom, and when Macbeth returned from checking his report, his entrance echoed the earlier one when he’d just done the murder, as he was holding the bloody daggers in his hands. Lady Macbeth was on stage by this time, and she was very concerned about Macbeth’s actions in killing the grooms – I could see her face while she hugged Malcolm in sympathy for his loss – and she became even more concerned when Macbeth struggled to find a reasonable excuse when challenged about their killing. Her fainting was definitely a tactical move tonight.

There was a short scene to tell us about both the coronation and Malcolm and Donalbain’s flight, and then Macbeth and his wife, now king and queen, entered in splendour. We could see all was not well though. Macbeth looked confident enough, but Lady Macbeth was having the odd wobbly, especially when Macbeth made it clear that he wanted her to leave him alone as well. The two murderers were in hand restraints, and Macbeth twirled a key in his fingers while he talked with them, making it perfectly clear what was at stake. It did distract me a bit from the dialogue, though. I noticed one of the murderers tried to have his say but was always cut short by one of the others.

I don’t remember anything specific about the next scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the killing of Banquo was done briskly, with Fleance running off as usual. The banquet scene was set up fairly quickly, with a large round plate full of tasty food placed on the centre of the stage which then rose up to form the table. There were other plates added and seats placed round it while two fancier seats were stationed at the two main exits. These were the thrones, and while Lady Macbeth sat on her throne – hence “keeps her state” – Macbeth wandered round the table, playing the host to his guests. When the murderer entered on our side of the stage, Macbeth came over to hear his news, so my view of Banquo’s entrance was blocked, but Steve saw him slide onto a seat on the other side of the table. There were only three other lords anyway, so he wasn’t hard to spot when the murderer left and Macbeth moved out of the way. Macbeth’s reactions were good, and I was able to be aware of both his point of view and that of the others in the room who couldn’t see the ghost. Banquo did all the necessary head movements, and for his second entrance he came up through the middle of the table, right through the plate of food. Lady Macbeth looked worn out by the end of this scene, while Macbeth was still energised and determined to keep going. After the other lords had left, Macbeth started and looked round once more when he thought the ghost might have come back, but there was nothing there; it simply showed how jumpy he was.

They took the interval after this scene, and during it we noticed the stage crew putting little objects in gaps around the stones, like an Easter egg hunt. This proved to be more accurate than I realised. Meanwhile the second half started with Hecate telling off the three witches for messing things up and instructing them to put it right immediately. Hecate herself was one of many parts played by Christopher Logan,  and he was wearing a large headdress with a mask and suitably witchlike clothing. After she left, the witches began their spell, throwing lots of vaguely disgusting-looking things into the cauldron – I didn’t look too closely. When Macbeth confronted them they were amazingly helpful, clearly influenced by Hecate’s telling off.

The three apparitions stuck their heads up through the cauldron. For the final apparition, Banquo emerged onto the stage, while a younger man came up and sat on the side of the hole and the youngest lad simply put his head through. Banquo put a crown on the young man’s head, and he in turn took it off and put it on the young lad; there was no mention of the long line of kings. The news of Macduff’s flight came, and Macbeth was by now determined to take action – it doesn’t look good for Mrs Macduff and the bairns.

The Macduffs were having a good time collecting eggs on the sea shore, judging by the sound effects. The eggs were duly collected by her son, and the only other child present was a baby, placed in a wicker crib to one side of the stage. The warnings came and went, but she lingered too long and the murderer and Macbeth were the ones who came to do the killing. Actually, Macbeth just stood to one side while the murderer did the business, but the effect was the same. Macbeth took the baby out of its crib and held it all the while, then took it away with him at the end. I don’t know what this was meant to signify, but both Steve and I thought it may have been a way of getting a replacement baby for the one he and his wife had clearly lost (there may have been more than one, of course). It did make Ross out to be a liar when he reported later that all Macduff’s children were dead, but it’s a minor point. Lady Macduff was very strong in this scene, as was her son.

The scene in England was also well done, with Malcolm’s testing of Macduff being very clear. When Ross turned up with his bad news, there was a strange delay between Macduff’s question about his family and the answer, but tonight it simply came across as Ross giving the necessary background before coming to the point. He seems to be a wordy character anyway, similar to Polonius but not as funny. Macduff’s reactions were very moving, and I started the sniffles in this scene. No English doctor this time.

Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking was another good scene. The doctor and servant set it up nicely and we could see the candle before we saw the woman. She used the pool over to our left to wash her hands at first, then moved towards the middle. The servant was standing in front of her for most of the latter part of this scene, but from the dialogue I could tell it was a good performance. She gave a long, keening cry towards the end before leaving the stage to go back to bed.

The English and Scottish troops had their meetings and made their decision to cut branches to cover their advance. I found myself thinking there wouldn’t be much left of Birnam wood by the time they’d been through it. Meantime at Dunsinane Macbeth was getting more and more worked up. I don’t remember a Seyton as such; the murderer did any work that was necessary such as bringing on the armour, while the doctor brought the news about the wood. Just as he entered, the murderer left carrying the baby which Macbeth had finally relinquished; the doctor looked really worried as he saw the baby being taken out.

The foliage arrived with Malcolm’s forces, and was more substantial than in many a production. The fighting between Macduff and Macbeth was very strong, with sparks flying from the swords as they clashed. Macbeth was doing better than Macduff till he heard the bad news, then he struggled to match his opponent. For the final scene, there was a very realistic head on the pole which was placed in the centre of the stage, but fortunately Geoffrey Streatfeild came on to take his bow with the rest of them – phew.

I was aware of a number of things tonight. Firstly, I realised that unlike Richard III and Iago, Macbeth isn’t an evil man, he just finds himself doing evil things because of that fatal flaw, his ambition. As a result we have to watch someone much closer to a regular human being making bad choices and suffering the consequences all through the play. Even Lady Macbeth’s prayer to be filled with evil is a failure; she starts to suffer from her actions very quickly, and couldn’t even face killing Duncan herself because he looked like her father – what a waste of breath that was. It’s this connection to our own flawed humanity which makes this play interesting and also difficult. I’ve heard a number of people comment that we become complicit in, for example, Richard III’s villainy, but I don’t see it that way. The audience has no say in what he does, and yet it’s fascinating to see the way his mind works and how others are duped – the audience are much more like them than Richard. The humour helps as well, but Richard III wouldn’t be watchable if he didn’t lose in the end; that makes it cathartic instead of scary. Apart from the porter and one or two other bits, there’s precious little humour in Macbeth, and that also makes it harder to ‘enjoy’.

From the Oxford Complete Works I’ve learned that the version of Macbeth we’re left with has been interfered with by Thomas Middleton, although the extent of the tampering isn’t known. That made sense tonight, as I felt we were watching an unbalanced and misshapen play, which doesn’t quite work in the way Shakespeare’s other plays do. Even so, this was an excellent production of what we do have, and if some members of the audience hadn’t been so intent on coughing their way through the second half we would have enjoyed it even more.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – October 2011

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Daniel Evans

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd October 2011

This was our maiden voyage as far as the Crucible is concerned. I found myself getting very excited – I love watching the snooker World Championships, and here I was, in the very building! I took a few minutes after we sat down to see where everything went for the snooker, so that I could put that to one side, and concentrate on the play.

The set was interesting, and effective. A large octagonal platform, sloping towards the front, occupied most of the space. There was a large eight-sided star design on it, suggesting the geometric patterns used in Islam, although it didn’t look particularly Islamic to me. The back wall was made of stone, with strategic gaps here and there. Two very tall wooden doors were placed in the middle, and there were mini arches along the top, along with some carving above the door. Some steps went nowhere on the left hand side – these were used as a platform for the herald, announcing the celebrations for Othello’s nuptials on Cyprus, and also supplied a sort of hiding place when required. Lights were lowered occasionally, and also the curtains for the wedding bed in the final act. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and didn’t get in the way of the action. There were steps up to the platform all around the back of it. We sat to the left of the stage, and had an excellent view throughout – very little blocking, although we also saw a lot of backs through the performance.

The opening scene between Iago and Roderigo took a little while to get going for me. Dominic West had chosen a local accent for his Iago, and the unexpected sound took me by surprise. Silly really, given our location. Anyway I tuned in pretty quickly, and had very little difficulty later on. I still got the gist of the scene, and that was one of the great things about this production. They told the story really well, so that even when I didn’t catch all of the dialogue, I could see the characters’ emotions and thoughts clearly, as well as the connections of cause and effect which underpin this tragedy.

Roderigo was the same snivelling little brat we know and love so well from previous productions. Brabantio was weaker in this production than we’re used to, but he did well enough to keep the story going. I did like the way that Iago paused before the word ‘senator’ when replying to Brabantio’s insult ‘Thou art a villain’. As a general point, the exits and entrances didn’t exactly overlap as they do in some Shakespeare productions, but they were brisk, which helped to keep the running time down.

The next scene is our first sight of Othello, and Clarke Peters did a superb job with this part. In this scene he’s calm, reasoned and authoritative, stopping the fighting before anyone gets hurt. I did find myself wondering why Desdemona doesn’t appear at this point, although I accept her entrance has a better dramatic effect in the following scene, which starts with the Duke and two senators discussing the threat from the Turkish fleet. It’s always a bit absurd to have the various messages come so fast – the fleet must be travelling at a fair old clip to make such progress – but we’ll allow the artistic licence. This production made the political and military situation nice and clear, so the need for Othello’s services and the respect in which he’s held were well established by the end of this section.

When Desdemona enters she’s covered by a white veil. She removes it when asked to speak and gives it to Iago, who threw it aside. Roderigo must have retrieved it, as he’s clutching it later on. Now there’s always a dilemma when casting the young heroine parts in Shakespeare – do you go for a young, inexperienced actress who can easily represent youth, beauty, naivety, etc., or do you opt for a more experienced actress who can deliver the lines better, but whom the audience has to imagine to be a young girl? This dilemma was thrown into sharp relief for us earlier this year, when we heard Jane Lapotaire delivering a speech of Juliet’s at an event at the Birthplace Trust. No longer a young girl, she still had us believing every word of her speech, such was her ability to convey the thoughts and emotions in every line. The choice tonight was youth all the way, which may have engaged the younger audience members, but left us with a slightly weaker Desdemona than I would have liked to begin with. I warmed to her performance though, and she certainly made the age difference apparent.

When everyone else has left, Roderigo comes to centre stage, clutching the veil Desdemona has left behind, inhaling it to catch her scent, the poor fool. Iago has to work hard to talk him out of drowning himself, but of course he succeeds. His own plans are laid, and I felt his motivation was pretty clear tonight – he’s unhappy at his treatment by Othello, and only too ready to use the suspicion that Othello’s had his wife as justification for his wickedness. There were two significant things about this performance which made it stand out; one was Iago’s totally convincing acting when talking to Othello about Desdemona, and the other was his total presence, always listening intently to pick up extra clues that he can use to his own advantage. He noticed Desdemona’s line about Cassio ‘that came awooing with you’, and that triggered one of his questions to Othello later.

Back to the play: we’re now in Cyprus, and there’s a storm raging, which eventually disperses the Turkish fleet without harming any of the Venetian vessels – how fortunate. Yet again, they saw no need to drench everyone in real water to make the storm ‘real’, thank goodness. Desdemona’s banter with Iago seemed longer this time, and I understood more of it.

The action comes thick and fast now. I spotted that the fateful handkerchief is in Othello’s hand when he and Desdemona head off to bed. Later, Emilia comments that it was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona after their marriage, which explains why Cassio didn’t recognise it. The drinking bout soon had Cassio incapable, and almost without his breeches as well, sitting in a trunk. After the quarrel with Roderigo, Cassio injured Montano, whose wound only bled on the napkin and left his shirt untouched – very helpful to the wardrobe department, I’m sure. Iago’s apparent slip in fingering Michael Cassio as the cause of the rumpus was very well done, and again he acted completely like a man who wanted to help his friend, while actually digging a deeper hole for him to fall into. When he fired Cassio, Othello took his sword and cut through the sash of office which he was wearing – Iago wears a similar sash later on.

We were then ‘treated’ to the music, arranged by Cassio, which Othello is keen to stop. It was an odd combination of a stringed instrument and two woodwind; the tune began with the strings, then one of the woodwind instruments joined in, then the other – the tune was inappropriate and very funny, and I could understand Othello’s preference for silence. There are several short conversations, and then Othello and Iago come on stage just as Cassio leaves. This extended scene is crucial to the play; it’s where Iago begins to plant the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind, and all Desdemona’s innocent behaviour begins to look deceitful.

A desk and a chair had been brought on towards the back of the stage, on the left side. Othello is dealing with paperwork, signing various documents, and Iago is folding them and tying them up with ribbon. Desdemona’s badgering of Othello is lively and successful, but once Iago gets going, the mood changes. From loving Desdemona completely, Othello becomes disturbed, then angry, and when Desdemona comes back to fetch him in to dinner, he’s seriously troubled. This is where Desdemona drops the handkerchief, not noticing it till too late. Emilia spots it, however, and actually stands over it to speak the first of her lines. She soon picks it up, and when Iago returns, she’s tucked it into her bodice. He gets it from her, after a little chasing round the stage, and then Othello returns, much disturbed by thoughts of jealousy.

This scene between the two men was very well done. I didn’t hear all of the lines, but the emotional charge was very powerful, and the way Iago was manipulating his victim was chillingly clear. He never let up for a moment. Even his plea to Othello to let Desdemona live was reminding Othello of his threat to ‘tear her all to pieces’. When Othello knelt to make his oath, cutting his hand to emphasise his commitment, Iago seized the opportunity to get even closer to the man he was working to destroy. He also knelt, and made an extravagant promise to serve Othello in his quest for revenge, and even though Othello had been constantly going on about how honest Iago was, this took their relationship to the next level. It was a gamble, but a successful one.

They took the interval after this scene, which was probably just as well, as we needed the break ourselves, never mind what the actors felt. The second half opened with some dramatic lighting, as I remember, but the next scene starts with the light-hearted banter among Desdemona, Emilia and the Clown. One of the things I’ve noticed going through the text to write these notes is how continuous the action is, with each scene depending on the preceding one, so there’s no real chance to change the scenes around. This came across very clearly in this production, with the flow of the story being very strong.

This scene continues with Othello’s request to see the handkerchief, and this is the first time that he’s been angry with Desdemona – it’s a shock to her, and to Emilia. I found myself thinking that all marriages go through their difficult phases; unfortunately, this difficult phase has been created by somebody else, which makes it impossible to resolve.

After Othello has left, Iago and Cassio enter, but Iago soon leaves to check on Othello, full of concern of course. When Desdemona and Emilia are just about to head off, I noticed another head peeping round the corner of the door at the back – it’s Bianca. She takes the handkerchief from Cassio and they leave, only for Iago and Othello to return. This is the scene where Othello’s emotions get so worked up that he collapses. I haven’t always bought into that bit, but this time Othello works himself up so much, fuelled by Iago’s promptings, that it seemed completely believable.

When Othello recovers, Iago sets up his biggest deception yet. With Othello ‘hiding’ by the stairs at the back, and then below the level of the platform, Iago easily gets Cassio to talk about Bianca. Othello is hugely affected by Cassio’s behaviour, especially when Bianca reappears and throws the handkerchief back at Cassio. After Iago and Othello have plotted the death of the two ‘lovers’, Lodovico turns up, and again we see Othello display even greater anger towards Desdemona, even hitting her. It’s a ghastly sight, and still the others are doing their best to make allowances for him.

When Othello questions Emilia, I did wonder why she doesn’t tell him about the handkerchief, given that she’s seen how upset Othello was about it, but of course Desdemona’s already lied about it, so she wouldn’t want to betray her. Later, when Iago is with the two women, I could see Emilia start to think when she talks about ‘some most villainous knave, some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow’; knowing her husband as she does, and that he was deceived by someone about her, she began to look at him with a dawning realisation that the ‘scurvy knave’ may be very close to home. The women leave and Roderigo comes back, complaining yet again that Iago hasn’t delivered on his promises. He even throws Iago to the ground, causing Iago to show some pretend respect for the lad.

When Desdemona is preparing for bed, the eight-fold star outline on the stage is lit up beautifully. A couple of chests are brought on, and Emilia helps Desdemona out of her clothes, packing them away into one of the chests. When they leave, the light fades, and we’re back on the street with Iago and Roderigo, ready to attack Cassio. The scuffle was short and straightforward, leaving Roderigo dead. Then the bed itself is set up for the climactic scene, with the curtains dropping down from above. It became a little crowded by the end, for both Desdemona and Emilia were lying dead on it, side by side, and Othello managed to fit himself on as well, but at least it would have been comfortable enough by that time, for the two swords and a dagger which had been hidden in it had been removed. Quite the armoury, that bed.

The final scene was very moving. Throughout the play, I’d felt great sympathy for Othello. His suffering was plain to see once the jealous thoughts had taken hold, and it was clear that it was only Iago’s manipulation that put them there. His ‘recovery’ from the jealous pangs once Desdemona was dead led to even more suffering, as he realised what he’d done – not much consolation for her, of course, but still deserving of compassion.

We weren’t the only ones who’d enjoyed ourselves; they received a well-earned standing ovation at the end, and I leapt to my feet as well to join in. I noticed a look between Clarke Peters and Dominic West as they left the stage for the second time – what the hell, they might as well enjoy it, so they came back for another round of bows. How we loved it!

The most amazing thing about this production was the energy; I felt drawn in like never before. I’ve often found large chunks of Othello boring – not so tonight. Even though I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, I was totally absorbed, and felt exhilarated at the end. The two leads worked really well together, and Alexandra Gilbreath was a much stronger Emilia than usual; the only comparable performance I can remember was Amanda Harris at the RSC quite a few years ago now. With such a young Desdemona, the balance between these four characters was different, but still worked really well.  I’m so glad we had such a great experience for our first visit here – we’ll be back.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me