Macbeth – August 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 26th August 2011

Good as it was to see this play again from a different angle, we did lose the surprise factor the second time around, and I felt a little more distant from the action this time at the start – perhaps it was the chilly nature of the auditorium, which for an August day felt more like November. There were some things I saw better from our more central angle, and I noticed a few changes, as well as enjoying some of the ‘fun’ bits again. It’s still a good production, and I hope to catch it in London when it transfers.

As I watched the opening speech by Malcolm, I realised that having him deliver it emphasises Macbeth’s achievements compared to his. Malcolm is wounded, disoriented, and is merely reporting the victory that Macbeth has won. I spotted the mention of the Thane of Cawdor in Ross’s report, and later wondered why Macbeth, who has been battling the Norwegians and their allies in Scotland, i.e. Cawdor, doesn’t realise that the thaneship is likely to become vacant in the near future. It’s a minor quibble, of course, but these things do catch my attention from time to time.

Lady Macbeth seemed less concerned about hiding the letter tonight, and there was a small change when she was persuading Macbeth to commit murder – she put the emphasis on ‘screw’ this time (‘but screw your courage to the sticking-place’). Once convinced, Macbeth behaved very differently, with much more confidence and a willingness to deceive.

The dagger scene was done without the mist tonight, the murder all went down the same way as before, and then the porter gave us all the fun of seeing other audience members being picked on – not me tonight, thank goodness – then the explosions, and finally the warning about not going back to a lit firework. Still got a laugh and applause. Macbeth didn’t look intently at the porter tonight; in fact, the porter was gazing intently at him this time while Macbeth wandered to the front of the stage to wait for the inevitable outcry. After it came, and Macbeth did the dirty on the grooms, I kept an eye on Lady Macbeth as she listened to Macbeth’s justification and watched the court’s reactions. I reckon her faint was strategic, but as I couldn’t see the lords’ faces this time I can’t be sure. If not, then it may have been a foretaste of her madness later on.

Ross’s meeting with Macduff segued into the coronation, with Ross starting the falsetto singing after Macduff leaves. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth came down on a bench, the bowl was brought on for the water, and Macbeth’s head was dunked as before. Then I saw that Lady Macbeth held her hands in the water, washing them, before throwing water into Macbeth’s cupped hands. ‘God save the King’ was chanted three times, and then we were straight into Macbeth’s line ‘Here’s our chief guest’.

The banquet scene straddled the interval as before, and the rest of the action seemed pretty much the same to the end of the play. I did notice that when Macbeth was with the children again, and has been told about Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, his response includes the line ‘Who can…bid the tree Unfix his earth-bound root?’ There had been some comments about the nature and volume of the foliage on show in this production, and I reckon this line may have been the reason why the tree and branches that were used all had roots on them. They also act as a reminder of the general theme, that Macbeth is childless while Banquo is the father of a line of kings.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 14th June 2011

This was fantastic! The whole production worked wonderfully well, with some great performances and some startling new interpretations. The initial set was a derelict church. The back wall, across the back of the thrust, had wood panelling on each side, and a large wooden door in the middle underneath a wide balcony. Defaced paintings either side of the door suggested the Reformation period. Above this, the remains of two large stained glass windows stood either side of two saint niches – one of these had been blasted through to the outside, while the saint in the other one was damaged. Stairs ran down to the stage on the left, and there were two piles of rubble in front of the back wall, either side of the door; the remains of the missing saint could be seen on one pile. Two lines of strip lights went back to front of the stage, and there were some missing bits in the floorboards. Although it wasn’t a factory setting, it reminded me of last year’s King Lear set, and I was a bit worried at first. But I soon realised that this set didn’t dominate the action, and it was tidied up in the interval, with significant repairs for the final scene. I wondered later if the sense of destruction may have been intended to suggest that the country was more divided in Duncan’s time than they were letting on?

Before the start, three women carried their cellos onto the balcony, and sat there throughout the action. Oho, we thought, could these represent the three witches? But no, they played some beautiful music, moody and melancholic, but there were no witches in this production, so tough. In fact, the play started with the bloody man’s speech, only this time the bloody man is Malcolm, and he’s prompted several times by Ross before he gets going. This confused me a bit – neither Steve nor I can figure out what the prompting was intended to convey, either at the start or later on – and that may have been why I didn’t understand the first bit of Malcolm’s speech properly. For the most part, the dialogue was extraordinarily clear; this was about the only bit I had difficulty with.

After the initial report of the battle, the witches are supposed to put in a second appearance, but here we go straight to Macbeth and Banquo arriving on stage. Did I detect a hint of limp as Macbeth first walked onto the stage? Or was it just the memory of Richard III? Anyway, there’s little for Macbeth and Banquo to say at this point, until three figures are lowered down on meat hooks at the front of the stage. At first I thought they were dummies, then I realised they were alive, and not only that, they were three children, two boys and one girl. Wearing drab clothes, they had dark crosses painted on their foreheads. Steve was aware that these represented the crosses for birth and death. They spoke their first lines from the air, hailing Macbeth and priming him with the seductive titles, then descended and removed their hooks while Banquo is saying his lines. The children turn to leave, but Banquo calls them back, and they give his prophecies in a very solemn way, before bursting into childish laughter (think The Turn Of The Screw) and running off. This was very creepy. I didn’t have a clear view of Macbeth while all of this was going on, so I want to watch carefully another time to see his reactions to the children’s greetings.

Ross and Angus arrive, and Macbeth is clearly stunned to hear himself addressed as Thane of Cawdor. He stays towards the front of the stage to talk to us while Banquo chats with Ross and Angus back left. After they leave, Duncan walks on from the back, while Malcolm, now cleaned up but still with a scar on his forehead, reports the death of Cawdor. As Duncan emphasised the line “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”, I was aware that he’s about to make the same mistake again.

Macbeth and Banquo approached this gathering down the centre aisle, and again all the lines were totally clear. There’s just a hint of Macbeth leaning forward as Duncan turns in his direction to announce that Malcolm is to be his successor; Malcolm was standing next to Macbeth at the time. Macbeth’s lines about heading off to his castle to prepare for the king’s visit sounded stilted and jerky compared to his previous lines, but the court presumably put it down to battle fatigue.

As they left the stage towards the front, Lady Macbeth sneaks on at the back. She’s clearly come into another room to read Macbeth’s letter; I got the impression that she’s read the start of it, realised it wasn’t for public viewing, and stepped aside to read the rest in a private chamber. This was a great performance, with clarity in the dialogue, and a sense of someone not so much evil as ruthless, and prepared to go as far as she could to achieve her ambition. In some ways, this was more disturbing than seeing her as a monster; she could just as easily be a suburban housewife as a wannabe queen.

Macbeth arrives, and she soon realises she’ll have to persuade him to murder Duncan. Then Duncan himself arrives, and is greeted warmly by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done when ‘tis done” was delivered well; Jonathan Slinger tended to do all of these speeches from the sweet spot, or as near as he could get from up a ladder, suspended in a chair or whatever. There wasn’t much movement, but he included us all, and as we were right round one side, I was impressed. During the persuasion scene, Macbeth actually walks off part way through. Lady Macbeth stops him with “I have given suck”, and gets him back with “but screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail”, with a strong emphasis on “your courage”.

When Banquo comes on with Fleance, I wasn’t sure why he gave the boy his sword to hold at first, but then he handed Fleance a jewelled orb to hold as well, posing him carefully, and it dawned on me; he wants to savour the prospect of his children being kings! The orb is the diamond he gives to Macbeth shortly afterwards, and then we’re into the famous dagger speech. This time, the dagger is totally imaginary, although with a swirling mist in the middle of the stage, we could be forgiven for thinking there might be something there, if only we could see it! (I jest; actually the mist wasn’t that thick this time.)

After he leaves, Lady Macbeth comes on from the side, and has clearly been drinking with the grooms. The owl’s screech is actually done by the little girl running across the stage from the back to the far walkway, invisible to Lady M. The rest of the scene is nicely edgy; both characters are showing the strains of murder, and Macbeth especially is far too loud for comfort; Lady M puts her hand over his mouth to quiet him at one point.

The next scene is the porter, and here I have to admit to one of the few occasions when I have been so deeply impressed by one performance that all others fail miserably by comparison. I’m referring to Adrian Schiller’s marvellous portrayal of a completely sozzled porter many years ago, when he fell down between two bits of scenery and re-emerged still holding his drink. We will always remember that porter, and so we have no great expectations of this scene in any other production. This version wasn’t too bad, though, and now that I’ve read the program notes, I can see that the business was intended to reflect the failed gunpowder plot of 1605. The porter, dressed in a red outfit (this is relevant – read on), with a bulging coat and blood on his face, staggered on and leered at us all. He opened his coat, and there were lots of sticks of dynamite strapped to his body. He took one out, and as he identified each new arrival in hell, he lit the fuse and placed the stick of dynamite in front of the poor audience member. I knew they wouldn’t blow us up, but even so, I found myself riveted on the fuses as they burned down. They were different lengths, so they all reached the dynamite at about the same time, and then stopped. Nothing. The porter picked them all up and threw them in disgust in the corner, amongst the rubble, where they went off with fairly loud bangs. Good fun. Then he warned us not to go back to a lit firework, which got another laugh and applause.

Macduff arrived, and as he went in to wake the king, Macbeth, Ross and the porter waited outside – Ross took the part of Lennox. Again, I couldn’t quite see what was going on between the porter and Macbeth, but Macbeth was looking very intently at him. The alarms and clamour were all well done, and I could see that the situation could appear too risky for Malcolm to stay and claim his crown as Duncan’s heir. Macbeth’s justification for killing the grooms was strong enough to sound reasonable this time, and I couldn’t see enough of Lady Macbeth’s faint to know how that was set up. There was a strong atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty.

As I recall, the next scene started with Ross on his own, later joined by Macduff, and already Ross is coming across as an appeaser type, wanting things to be well, but nervous about what’s really going on. Macduff is much more straightforward. I forget whether we get Banquo’s lines at the start of the next scene or not, but we do get a coronation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come down from above, sitting on either a pair of thrones or a bench, with the other nobles coming on from the sides. Ross has been wearing a crucifix during the play so far, and now with some additional religious dressing, conducts the ceremony. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kneel facing each other across the middle of the stage, with Ross behind them. A large bowl is placed between the Macbeths, and water rains down from above, filling it up. Ross dunks Macbeth’s head in the water, and uses it to make the sign of the cross. I don’t remember if he does the same to Lady Macbeth. The bowl is removed, after the water has stopped, of course, and a posh new robe is placed on Macbeth along with the crown. The court shouts “God save the King” a couple of times, and then the dialogue picks up again with Macbeth’s welcome to Banquo. After their brief discussion, Banquo tries to take his leave several times, with Macbeth asking a fresh question and keeping him there. Finally he leaves, and Macbeth dismisses the rest of the court, including Lady Macbeth, who’s evidently concerned at being excluded.

Macbeth’s soliloquy was fine, and then I think the murderers were brought on by the porter, or Seyton as we now know him to be. They’re quickly convinced by Macbeth’s arguments, and willing to do the necessary killing. After they leave, Lady Macbeth tells us of her concerns about their situation, and then rallies to encourage her husband when he expresses the same feelings. Macbeth gives his wife a big hug at this point, wrapping his arms and his robe around them both like a huge duvet, making it a little hard to see their expressions, but it’s clear that Lady Macbeth isn’t happy about things.

Seyton joins the two murderers for the attack on Banquo and Fleance. The fight is worth paying attention to; Banquo is stabbed several times, then holds on to one of the murderers to stop him reaching Fleance, who’s standing still instead of running away. Finally Fleance runs and Banquo’s throat is cut from behind. The two murderers run off, and then Banquo rolls over, gets up, and walks through the door which is held open by Seyton/the porter. Seyton’s red outfit echoes the red clothes worn by the gatekeeper to the dead in Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle, and it’s clear he’s carrying out the same role here.

The banquet scene was nice and uncluttered in this production. Instead of bringing on a table and lots of chairs, the stage is left bare, and the Macbeths and the rest of the court simply walk around. We, the audience, are included in the assembled throng. Macbeth’s comment about there not being a place for him at the table is obviously cut. The conversation with the murderer takes place at the back of the stage, and when Banquo arrives the first time, he batters through the door, and walks over to Macbeth before leaving. The second time round, Banquo comes down from the balcony, strides over to Macbeth, and executes the same wounds on him that he received when he was murdered, while Macbeth cries out “Treachery” and “Fly” as Banquo did to Fleance. Lady Macbeth is very upset, and when she complains that Macbeth’s behaviour spoils the mirth, she grins and laughs too much, trying to make the situation into a joke, but no one else joins in. This was clearly the start of her madness.

When Macbeth ‘dies’, the scene is ended, and they take the interval, which reminded us of the Rupert Goold Macbeth in Chichester several years ago. Sure enough, the second half starts with a short reprise of Banquo’s second appearance, only without the ghost, so Macbeth’s ranting and reactions to the blows are caused by nothing. Lady Macbeth goes hysterical, the court is seriously concerned, and after she sends them packing she and Macbeth are both badly shaken. Steve reckoned this was the first time he could see both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go crazy; she reacts by sleepwalking, he goes hard and cold, and keeps killing people. The seeds of the madness are sown in this scene.

It’s nothing new for productions to skip over Hecate’s next scene, but the following scene is usually between Lennox and another Lord. Here we get Ross, on his own, and deeply troubled. He’s not only nervous, he’s drinking a lot from a flask, and his speech again shows that he’s doing his best to accept Macbeth as a good king, but the evidence keeps mounting up on the other side. That speech finishes early, and then Ross leaves the stage to Macbeth and the three meat hooks.

The three children aren’t around to begin with, but after Macbeth conjures them, we hear them giggling and laughing, and then they come on from the back, each one carrying a doll. They sit in the centre of the stage, and the prophecies are delivered through the dolls, with a lot more dolls falling down from above when Banquo’s line of kings is being shown. For this part, Banquo himself puts in an appearance, bursting up through the stage floor on the far side, leaving a hole which is there for the rest of the performance. The first murderer is the one Macbeth talks to after the apparitions have gone, and it’s clear Macbeth means business. In fact I half expected to see him turn up at Macduff’s castle to do some killing himself, but it was not to be. Interesting idea, though.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has come to visit his cousins, but although he knows more about the state of the realm, and must have some inkling of how much danger she and her children are in, he doesn’t tell her to run off. Nor, since the messenger has been cut, does anybody else. Her three children are, of course, the three dead children who have been plaguing Macbeth, cleaned up for the occasion, and it’s a bit spooky to realise that they’ve time-travelled in order to get their revenge. The two murderers do their job fairly quickly, although one of them leads the little girl off stage to our right while the other finishes off Lady Macduff by the back wall. When the murderers have left, the dead bodies on stage rise up as Banquo did, and the porter is there to hold the door open for them. Just at the end, the little girl comes running back on stage, so we know she’s been killed as well. Ross appeared at the far balcony just as the dead bodies were removing themselves, so he sees what’s happened for himself.

To England now, and an excellent reading of the scene between Macduff and Malcolm. It started with Macduff coming on stage at the front as his family go through the door at the back. He strides after them, but the door shuts before he can get there, and he hits it forcefully, after which the dialogue started. I found this scene so moving that I cried quite a bit. I reckon Ross delayed the news about the slaughter of Macduff’s family because Scotland’s needs were a greater priority that one man’s. I also spotted that Ross is no longer wearing his crucifix, whether for simplicity’s sake while travelling, or to indicate his moral discomfort, I don’t know. I couldn’t see him properly at the end, so I must look out next time to see if he’s wearing the crucifix again at the end. They included the lines about Edward the Confessor tonight; I think I may have heard them, or some of them, before, although Michael Boyd was sure they were always cut.

The doctor and the gentlewoman are next, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was very well done. When she was washing her hands, it reminded me of the water falling into the bowl during the coronation, as if she’s trying to use holy water to clean herself. She almost walked into the hole in the stage, but her attendant stopped her.

Macbeth’s next entrance is on a throne lowered from above towards the back of the thrust. He’s feeling confident and rather bullish, and there are some laughs at his lines. When the message about the soldiers comes, he actually cuts the messenger’s face himself, and smears the blood over it, although I was too far away to see this in detail. Seyton is sitting up on the balcony, and doesn’t come down until he finally gets Macbeth’s armour. I’ve forgotten now if we see the doctor again – I think that may have been cut, but I’ll watch more closely next time.

When Malcolm and the army arrive, they’re accompanied by Banquo and the dead Macduffs, but not by Siward. This is a Scots-only do. Later, when the army arrives at Dunsinane, Lady Macduff and her children are the ones carrying the branches – in fact she’s carrying a small tree – while the soldiers are unencumbered. The greenery is placed in the hole for the duration.

For Macbeth’s next speech, a ladder rises up from the stage towards the back of the thrust, and Macbeth climbs up it. The start of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” was good enough, but I felt the rest of speech wasn’t quite there yet, though close. I think this scene runs into the start of battle, and as Macbeth is fighting the Scottish version of young Siward, Lady Macduff comes on carrying a sword, and leaves it beside the door at the back. When Macduff himself arrives, he grabs that extra sword when Macbeth attacks him with two of his own, and finally kills Macbeth on stage. As he lies there, Malcolm enters, and Macduff goes straight into “Hail, king!”. With Malcolm being prompted yet again by Ross for “We shall not spend…..” the play is almost finished, but there’s still one dead body to deal with.

At the very end, while the cello music is playing, Lady Macduff goes upstairs and opens the shutters on the stained glass windows, which are now whole, and which let in a beautiful light. She comes back downstairs, and along with her children spends a few moments just standing at the front of the stage, while they look at the dead Macbeth. Then they leave, and Seyton comes on to escort Macbeth’s dead body off stage. Macbeth rises, as if surprised to find there’s life after death, and looks around, He sees the door and heads towards it, and then the lights go out. Now it’s the audience’s turn to be noisy, and we do our very best.

This was a tremendous emotional journey, with many enjoyable performances. After seeing four of this season’s productions, I think the ensemble is stronger this time than last, with better verse speaking and lots of comic talent. Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Macbeth showed all the power he’s gained from such a long stint in The Histories, and although the connections with Richard III were obvious, I didn’t feel the earlier portrayal got in the way. Scott Handy took Ross on an interesting journey, helped by being given some of the other minor parts’ dialogue. He starts out a bit of an appeaser, then realises things have gone too far and goes to England. While he carried out the coronation, he sang beautifully using his falsetto singing voice which I remember from his Ariel, many years ago. Aislín McGuckin was wonderful as Lady Macbeth, and the whole cast supported the central performances brilliantly. The four children tonight were Jason Battersby, Hal Hewetson, Anwar Ridwan (Fleance), and Isabella Sanders.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – April 2010

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Silk Street Theatre

Date: Monday 5th April 2010

Two hours without an interval! And on less padded seats than I would like! And it’s a Cheek By Jowl production, which may be great, but then I didn’t go the distance with their Troilus And Cressida! God help us.

So far, so good. It’s a nice little theatre, attached to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and although the seats are firm, they’re not uncomfortable. The set is gloomy and misty, an open space with boxes and upended long crates flanking either side of the stage. That’s it.

Well, I managed to stay the distance, but I nodded off towards the end as the going got heavy. Steve and I agreed on this one – some 8/10 good bits, but some equally dull 4/10 sections, so overall a 6/10 rating is appropriate.

The cast were all in basic black, apart from the porter – more on that story later – and were often visible on stage, at first at the edges, then increasingly in the middle, surrounding the action without distracting from it, although I did find that they took away the focus from the active characters at times. During ‘If ’twere done…’, I found myself wondering what difference it would make if Macbeth were alone on the stage, and I decided it would be harder work for the actor to really make his presence felt, and also much more intense for the audience. I wasn’t convinced that Will Keen, much as I like his work, could have done that with this interpretation, although Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth was managing fine.

The staging had some good aspects, but there were puzzles. Why were some of the accents obviously Scottish, and others not? Lady Macbeth stayed on the stage after the sleepwalking scene – why? It seemed to work as Macbeth was seeing her there, sitting on a stool, but then the news of her death came – she had left the stage just beforehand – so presumably he was looking at a….what? A vision? A ghost?

There was a lot of mime used to replace props and gore. In many ways this was good – speeds up the action as actors don’t have to deal with the props or bother with blood bags – but again there were questions. The bloody man at the start appears to stab himself for no apparent reason. Steve reckoned it may have been to explain to the uninitiated why he’s called the ‘bloody man’, as they might think Duncan is just swearing, but the mime was unclear to me, so maybe I just didn’t get it. The victims of murder (and there are quite a few in even this edited version) all mimed their own killing, which I thought worked very well.

The witches were done as disembodied voices – there were only two women in the cast – and with the cast standing behind Banquo and Macbeth at the start; I found this very effective. For the prophecy scene, the rest of the cast carried children (dolls, that is) in a circle around Macbeth, ending with Banquo himself. Also good, as was the use of lights to represent the other spirits.

There were some long pauses during the staging, which were at odds with the rest of it. Lady Macbeth takes the pretty route when coming on stage to greet Duncan, and by the way, why was Duncan blind? Don’t ask me. Macduff was posed with his family before the killing scene, and stayed there for a bit as his wife and son had a very truncated dialogue about the wickedness of men. It made the point, emphasised in some other productions, that Macbeth does not have children to follow him, but it was also a bit distracting as well.

The porter was extremely memorable. The other woman in the cast played this part, and was done up in the only colourful costume of the production. Day-glo almost. And she was definitely the worse for wear – been out with her mates for a long pub crawl by the looks of her. Her cubby-hole was in one of the tall crates which was wheeled round to the centre of the stage. She spoke into an entrance phone, and was the liveliest character on stage, and with the broadest Scots accent, if I remember correctly.

All the other performances were fine, and the set, if I can call it that, was certainly atmospheric. But the production had too many flaws for me to rate it any higher.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – July 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 3rd July 2007

What a difference from the recent version we saw at Stratford. This was a much more coherent production, with filmic aspects adding another layer to the effect.

The setting was Russia in the 1950s, although to Steve it looked more like the 1920s. The stage layout was simple and bleak – the back walls, both on the slant, were institutional whitewashed brick, the floor plain, and to the left front stood a large sink with taps plumbed in from above. Central in the back wall was a lift, with metal concertina doors. It all seemed very functional, semi-industrial, and stark. Old style light shades hung from the ceiling, and different ones were lit at different times, to fit in with some very dramatic and effective lighting. To the right of the lift doors was a radiator, and to the right of that a fridge, with a small TV on top of it. A shelf on the left wall held a record player.

The opening scene here shows Duncan arriving at a field hospital, and talking with a wounded soldier who has been wheeled in on a hospital trolley, and is being attended to by a couple of nurses. There were three nurses in all on this ward – you have been warned. I found all the details in this scene a bit distracting. There was so much to look at that it was hard to concentrate on the soldier’s speech, so I didn’t get such a clear sense of what had gone on as I usually do. It was also very noisy at the start, as the battle was still going on, so I had to fiddle a bit with the headset. Still, it got a lot quieter after Duncan left, especially as the three “ward” sisters bumped off the wounded man – a chilling start.

We then get their “when shall we three…” stuff, followed by Macbeth and Banquo’s arrival. The witches had constructed a figure using one of those drip stands, a bag of blood (for the face), and an overcoat. As they had their backs to the front (sorry, that sounds so crazy), we could only see them in side view, so I’ve no idea how it looked to Macbeth and Banquo, but they did seem to be using the figure like a puppet. Macbeth & Banquo’s reactions were interesting. They were preparing to leave, when the witches start up their hailstorm, and Macbeth’s attention is caught by his additional titles. He’s obviously got ambition, and although he queries the plausibility of their words, he’s not that disinterested. Banquo is much more cheerful in this production. He’s almost bantering with the witches, and also sounds the note of caution about believing what they say. I’ll just mention here that the nurses/witches were dressed in simple grey uniforms, with white bib aprons, and white caps. At other times, they changed the caps to become servants, so they turned up in all sorts of places.

In order to melt into thin air, the witches took to the elevator, but instead of simply going up, there’s a blackout and some wibbly noises, and then when the lights come up they’ve disappeared! Amazing. Macbeth and Banquo are certainly astonished, the more so when Ross and Angus, the messengers from the King, arrive and start calling Macbeth Cawdor. I liked the way Angus, the military man, shows impatience with the way Ross, the suited civil servant(?) or diplomat(?), takes ages to get to the point. Macbeth is enthralled by the prospect of the witches’ final prophecy coming true, and with such ambition on show it was hard to believe that this Macbeth would be so reluctant to “catch the nearest way”. But not impossible.

Duncan and his entourage now emerge, and they’re full of praise for Macbeth’s abilities. When Macbeth arrives, there’s lots of congratulations, etc. Malcolm comes over to shake Macbeth’s hand, so he’s standing right beside him when Duncan makes his announcement about his heir, and for a moment, it looks like he’s going to name Macbeth. He even takes a small step forwards to accept, only to be caught out by Duncan’s actual choice. Of course, he covers it up well, congratulating Malcolm along with the rest (so he can act after all). Off they all go to Glamis castle.

Now the stage changes again, and this setting will apply through several scenes. There’s a metal trolley table to our left, and two trestle tables are brought on, middle and right. This is Glamis’ castle kitchen, and it’s a nice touch to give us such a domestic, even cosy setting, for the coming acts of darkness.

We had a very good Lady Macbeth last time, and this production was no slouch in that area either. Kate Fleetwood gave us a more passionate woman, driven by ambition and desire. Her invocation to the powers of darkness was very focused and intense, and showed none of the nervy character that Derbhle Crotty gave to her performance. At this point, Lady Macbeth is totally in control, but so focused that she’s effectively blinkered. I’ve always felt that she has this hunger for power, but thinks that killing Duncan will be enough to do it – nobody else needs to die. Macbeth, being better versed in killing, knows there are consequences, and it’s this that holds him back. He wants the same result, but he also wants to “be safely thus”. (It’s often those who don’t have to get involved in the process who are so enthusiastic about the benefits of murder.) Anyway, once Macbeth arrives, Lady Macbeth is already so wound up she’d have spent time persuading him even if he’d been equally as primed to go.

The kitchen staff turn up, and start preparing the evening feast, with Lady Macbeth helping out. Duncan and his crew actually arrive through the kitchen, which is pretty realistic for Scottish families. Seems a bit unlikely for a castle, mind you, but it does emphasise how intimate all these people are, despite their grand titles. Macbeth and his family are relatives of Duncan’s, after all. Lady Macbeth is remarkably coy in greeting Duncan, but all goes well. With the banquet in progress, Macbeth slips out to the kitchen to get some more wine. As he opens a bottle and decants it, he gives us his thoughts on “If it were done..”. Again the emphasis on him being the host, and the sense of family comes across strongly. Lady Macbeth joins him, and has to push him hard again to refocus his intentions. I noticed very much this time how Macbeth considers the witches words as promises – he’s easily led when it’s where he wants to go, although Lady Macbeth does have her hands full on the method side. Her excuse for popping out to the kitchen was getting the gateau for dessert – it looked lovely, and borders on distracting, but the actors are on top of it (the scene, that is), and I hardly noticed the cake.

Fleance, however, has obviously noticed the cake, as he sneaks into the kitchen for a late night snack and raids a piece from the fridge. He only gets a mouthful, though. Banquo arrives and chats with him, and then Macbeth turns up. I found it a bit surprising that Banquo, as the text has it, should draw his sword and challenge him, before he knows who Macbeth is. He is in a castle after all, in safe territory, and in its kitchen, too. But this production places a lot of emphasis on the idea of surveillance, and nobody being able to fully relax and trust each other, especially once the murder has happened. Macbeth takes the uneaten cake and returns it to the fridge – a surprising lack of hospitality for a Scotsman. Banquo takes his leave, and Macbeth is left alone to chat to a dagger. Will it be invisible this time? We can clearly see three kitchen knives left on the tables, so the opportunities are there, but Macbeth ignores them, and focuses on empty air. Once he’s got himself wound up again, and the bell strikes, he’s off to murder Duncan, who appears to be sleeping just off the kitchen (do all these Scots nobles like midnight snacks?).

Lady Macbeth comes on, and now her nervousness begins to show. She’s been all steel up to now, but the heat of action is starting to melt her resolve. She’s got the grooms drunk, left the daggers for Macbeth, but she’s also seen the sleeping Duncan, and been reminded of her father. Mind you, she’s still wife enough to nag at her husband when he comes back from doing the deed. I don’t know, give a woman exactly what she says she wants, and she still complains! That’s marriage for you. She returns with plenty of blood on her hands and throat, and manages to get her husband off to their bedchamber, just as the first knockings occur.

The porter. Well, we’ve seen all sorts here, some very good, others snoozable, but this was unique in terms of audience participation. He comes down in the lift, opens both the doors, and then gives us some of the lines we know so well. He’s carrying a torch, and uses it to shine on particular people in the audience, and then he picks on one guy, a teacher, whose students have obviously set him up to be the victim. Mr Wright is “encouraged” by the porter to take his place, and this porter, like Lady Macbeth, doesn’t take no for an answer. So we’re treated to the sight of Mr Wright, standing on the stage, holding the torch and something else the porter had (I forget what), looking thoroughly pissed off, and then deciding to give us “To be or not to be”. The porter, probably worried he was going to be upstaged, decided he’d had enough fun with the audience by this time, and let him go back to his seat. He got a good round of applause for being such a good sport.

Fortunately, the knocking had let up during this bit, but now it started again, and at long last the porter lets in family Macduff. This was a surprise in some ways, although I’d noticed Suzanne Burden was playing Lady Macduff, so I was half expecting she’d be given more to do than the usual one scene. The kids are there as well, one son and two daughters, all dressed for school. Obviously not a two-car family. Macbeth comes back, in his dressing-gown, and Macduff heads off to waken Duncan. The lines Lennox speaks in this scene are taken by Lady Macduff and her son.

I don’t remember exactly when all the other nobles arrive, but I think some do before Macduff returns. In any case, they’re all roused once he does, and Macbeth heads off to check on what he says, even though he knows it’s all too true. Macbeth’s attempt to excuse his killing of the grooms does come across as too much, but he does make a valid point, had he been innocent of Duncan’s murder. Lady Macbeth collapses as usual, and Malcolm and Donalbain head for safer ground.

Banquo is troubled by all of this. I think at one point during his soliloquy he rips a listening device from the underside of one of the tables, again pointing up the surveillance theme, although as he’d already said most of what he had to say, it seemed a bit late to be doing that. Perhaps he should have checked for bugs first, before he spoke.

After inviting Banquo to that night’s feast, Macbeth sends everyone away, including Lady Macbeth, who’s already starting to look concerned at the distance he’s keeping between them. Now Macbeth lets the scorpions out of his mind and plays with them for a bit. It seems to give him an appetite, because as the potential murderers are brought on, he gets a platter out of the fridge and makes himself a ham sandwich. I don’t know if there was some deeper meaning in the food aspects of this production, but in this case I simply found the sandwich making a distraction. It stopped the energy of the scene building up, and kept it too domestic. It may have been useful to show Macbeth giving a part of the sandwich to each of the murderers once they’ve “signed up”, but I really didn’t find this staging helpful. Perhaps the director is suggesting that Macbeth’s a compulsive snacker?

Later, when he’s talking with Lady Macbeth, she’s definitely feeling the pressure, due to his coldness towards her. They’re getting dressed for the feast, and while she would like to get physical, he’s not interested. Towards the end of the scene, where Macbeth calls on the powers of darkness, she’s disturbed by it, and especially because he so clearly echoes her original invocation after she’s read his letter.

Now the scene shifts, and all the tables are moved, while a collection of chairs is placed in two rows diagonally across the stage. Various characters take their seats, along with Banquo and Fleance, and suddenly we’re on a train, a strange form of riding, perhaps, but maybe Banquo’s a dedicated train spotter? The third murderer is Lennox, and instead of stabbing, Banquo is shot after a scuffle, but Fleance gets away. One of the murderers shoots one of his fellows, and then he heads off to tell Macbeth what’s happened. The rest of the people in the carriage don’t want to get involved. In that sense, it was a good staging, bringing out the wider sense of fear in society as a whole.

To cover the removal of the chairs, I think this is where the cast come on and sing a Russian-sounding song; something like a hymn. The chairs are away, and the tables are brought back on for the feast. No flying wine and bloody fruit here, thank goodness. The table runs from back to front of the stage, and the witches are among the servants tonight. All is going well, with Macbeth serving up the wine, and then stepping to one side to hear from the murderer. They stood just to our right, so we got a good view of their dialogue. Then Macbeth returns to the table, as the witches are serving up the soup. As he stands to one side, two of the witches are standing in front of his place, so he can’t see where he is to sit. They move away, and he sits down, and all begin to eat. Then the lift starts to descend, a film clip of red liquid dispersing is projected onto the back walls, spreading away from the lift entrance, and finally Banquo emerges, all gory, and walks straight up on to the table and along to the end to confront Macbeth, who recoils in horror. The witches are on either side of the table, arms outstretched, joining in the tableau. And there the first half ends!

This was a very good example of how this production, on several occasions, created a large gap between lines that are often run together. Even ignoring the interval, we have a long gap between “Here, my good lord.” And “What is’t that moves your highness?”. The initial staging of this scene is reprised after the interval, only this time, the conversation Macbeth has with the murderer is done silently, allowing us to focus on the action at the table. This follows the same pattern as before, except that Banquo doesn’t appear, so that when Macbeth starts violently back from the table, we know what he’s seeing, but we can also appreciate the point of view of the others at the feast. I found this very effective, giving us two different images to help us flesh out the scene.

After Macbeth’s first recovery, there’s a lovely bit of dancing, which reminded me very much of how Stalin apparently tormented his acolytes. The guests all pair up and start dancing – the record player comes into its own here – but as Banquo’s missing, someone has to dance with the mop! Everyone does their best to avoid it, and when the music stops, they all dash around to get another partner before the next dance. When Lady Macbeth ends up with the mop, she bangs it on the floor in time to the music, and it all gets a bit rowdy. Then the “ghost” makes another “appearance”, at least to Macbeth, and the party breaks up.

Hecate is not part of this production, so the next scene involves a chat between Lennox and another lord. This was staged strangely. I couldn’t see a lot of it, as Lennox was standing with his back to us, blocking off the view of Ross, the other lord in this case. Ross was sitting on a chair, and seemed to be being interrogated by Lennox. There was certainly a sense of intimidation in the air, although the lines themselves don’t help that interpretation. I can’t really supply any more information here, as I just couldn’t see enough to know what was going on.

Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches takes place in some chamber, possibly in his castle(?), where they bring on three corpses. Definitely not nurses you’d want to meet if you were ill. There’s a cut-off hand, and they sing a modern style song while clambering provocatively over the dead bodies. Whatever turns you on. The corpses are done up in white body bags, centrally zipped. Macbeth arrives via the lift, descending, of course. The information comes from the corpses, the one on the right being the first to speak. The one in the middle gets partly unzipped for his contribution, and for the final pronouncement, images are projected onto the back walls which I presume are meant to represent Banquo’s line of royal descendants. I could see the picture of Banquo himself, but I really couldn’t make out what the other images were, so I can’t help much there either.

At Macduff castle, we see the mother and her three children. I realised after a bit that the program being shown on the TV on the fridge was a kiddie’s program, which Macduff junior was watching, while his sisters did their homework. Is this why boys aren’t doing so well in school? His lines were shared out between him and the older sister, and then they all get killed. I couldn’t help feeling she was a silly cow, this woman. How many times do folk have to tell her to flee before she takes the hint? But no, she stays, complaining bitterly about how her husband has left her in such danger, not even packing a bag, as she does in some productions. What an idiot. Ross was brought back on stage by the murderers at the end of this scene, and I thought he was also going to be killed, but as he pops up in the next scene, alive and well, I have absolutely no idea what that was about.

The meeting between Malcolm and Macduff was an interesting staging. The chairs were on again, in rows, so that the English gentry could enjoy a music recital. Macduff crept on with his suitcase during the song, and sat at the back, waiting to speak to Malcolm. Once it was over, everyone else left, and they could talk in private. Their discussion was well performed, and brought out all the concerns of both men – Macduff to get a better king for Scotland, and Malcolm to check out whether Macduff is one of Macbeth’s agents or not. When Ross arrives, I felt unhappy with his initial hiding of Macduff’s great loss. I’ve no idea why Shakespeare does it this way, although I usually find it very moving once Macduff has been told what’s happened, but here I felt it could have been addressed a bit more clearly. However, the resulting reaction was even better than I could have expected. Despite the clearly emotional impact, Michael Feast as Macduff keeps it physically simple – his fingers just touch the back of the chair he’s next to. And then there’s silence, a long silence which allowed the emotional connection to deepen and spread. I thought at the time that it was great they had the courage to hold it so long. It didn’t overstay its welcome either, as Malcolm very gently returned us to speech. Beautifully done.

Now we’re back in Macbeth’s castle, and Lady Macbeth is about to take her nocturnal ramble. The servant talking with the doctor is one of the witches, although this time it may just be doubling, it’s not clear. One special effect here – as Lady Macbeth goes to wash her hands in the big sink, having poured bleach all over them, a torrent of red liquid gushes out of the taps, to her horror. Naturally the doctor and servant are oblivious to this. I haven’t always commented on the way through these notes, but Kate Fleetwood judged Lady Macbeth’s decent into madness very well, I thought, and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for her character’s suffering, I could understand why she’d done it to herself. Like Macbeth, she regarded the witches utterances as destiny, and felt totally justified in committing any sort of atrocity to get her way. Then she finds the consequences not to her liking, and the emotional energy she put into achieving their greatness has nowhere to go but crazy. Sad, but true.

Macbeth is now over-confident, as he’s been seduced by the corpses’ pronouncements into believing himself invulnerable. Still, he’s not a happy bunny, and as he thrashes around verbally, he calls for “Satan”, as I heard it. It’s “Seyton” in the text, but it’s fine to pronounce it Satan, and in this case, very appropriate. It’s the porter who answers to this name here, again appropriate.

We’re rapidly coming to the end now, and the scenes fly thick and fast. Finally, Macduff confronts Macbeth, and despite finding out that Macduff was not born of a woman, Macbeth decides to fight on. In fact, he briefly considers ending it all by shooting himself, but holsters his gun to fight Macduff with a knife. It’s always a difficulty when setting these plays in more modern times, to deal with the sword fighting when the characters would more naturally use a gun, or somesuch. It’s sorted here by having the gun empty, so Macbeth has to resort to more basic methods. He roars his lines, concluding with “and damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold””. I paid attention, and for definite, the “enough” part of that line was missing. For once, Macduff doesn’t get the better of Macbeth, but as Macbeth is about to deliver the killer blow, the three witches appear at the sides, and Macbeth pauses. Now he says “enough”, with resignation, and allows Macduff to kill him. A very interesting staging.

Other than mentioning that Siward is genuinely unmoved by his son’s death, once he knows he died honourably, there’s nothing more to report on the play. But there was more to come, as we’d come tonight to take advantage of the post-show (naturally), so we hung on to hear what more we could from the cast. The audience contained a lot of school kids (Mr Wright’s class), many of whom stayed on for the post-show. After some initial reluctance to ask questions themselves, they started to get more into it, and some interesting points emerged. But the main event was when Patrick Stewart very firmly told off a lot of those present for their behaviour during the performance. He pointed out that theatre is a combination of three things – a text or narrative, the actors, and the audience. All three have to work together to get the best out of the evening. As another actress had already mentioned, some of the younger folk had been chatting and making noises, and this had been distracting to the cast. (Apparently they talk about us backstage – good job my ears are fireproof!) He was quite firm without being unpleasant, and he certainly got across the message that those who had made more noise than they needed to had brought the performance down a bit from what it could have been. His words were warmly appreciated by those of us who have often felt such a speech would be useful.

Although I was aware of some noise from our right during the evening, I wasn’t too distracted myself, but I must allow for that in my final assessment of the performance. Looking back on it now, and writing down the staging and my reactions, I’m aware that it comes across better than I experienced it at the time. I did like a number of bits, such as the feast and its reprise, the long silence with Macduff and Malcolm, but overall I didn’t feel as engaged emotionally as I would like. Of course, that’s partly because I don’t relate to calling on the powers of evil, but even so, I found it more cerebral than emotionally charged.

The use of film was OK, but didn’t add much for me, other than the seeping blood bit just before the interval. The music was also OK, but without any significance that I could see. I liked the general setting, but the attempt to twist some parts of the play to emphasise that context left me cold. I thought the ensemble worked very well together, and I enjoyed many of the performances, but I found it lacking in depth, perhaps because the director didn’t trust the text enough to get the story across? All in all, though, a good production, with some classy moments.

Almost forgot, during the banquet scene, Macbeth took a cigarette off one of the guests who was about to light up, and crumbled it over his head. We didn’t know if this was a reference to the newly introduced smoking ban or not, but it was a good reminder of Macbeth’s abuse of power.

© 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

Macbeth – February 2007

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Grzegorz Bral

Company: Teatr Piesn Kozla (Song of the Goat Theatre)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd February 2007

This is a work in progress, as described in the brochure, so we had no idea what to expect. I felt certain that we would use the term “song of the goat” long after this performance, but I didn’t know what we would be referring to. It was so different, and so varied, that I may not be able to remember all of it, or the correct order, but here goes. Bear in mind this performance was about one hour, thirty-five minutes long – I doubt I’ll get these notes written that fast.

The Swan stage was filled with chairs. Most stood in a ring round the three inner seats. The outer ring faced in, the inner three faced out. [22/1/08 – I’ve only just realised the three inner seats were probably for the witches.] They were all straight, high-backed wooden chairs. With the lights low, the actors filed on from all four corners to take their seats. As they sat there, silently, the lights gradually grew stronger, shafting down from high oblique angles. I wasn’t sure at first if I was really hearing a faint droning sound, but as it became stronger, I realised the actors were toning, or humming, to create a background drone. Very pleasant. Then I caught a few over notes, and soon we had a full-blown vocal orchestra – polyphony, as the director later told us. There was a song, presumably in some middle European language (although this company is Polish, there were references to Russian songs, and other musical traditions in the director’s comments, so not knowing the languages, I don’t know which they were singing in. Possibly Polish, possibly not). Over this, one of the actors spoke some of the lines of the bloody man (honest, guv, that’s what it says in the text), and the rhythms of his speech blended with the singing to add greater musical texture than I’ve experienced before, even for Shakespeare. I was very aware of the unfolding story – how a mighty force was attacking, and Macbeth rose to the challenge.

By the way, we didn’t need surtitles, as all the text was spoken in English, but there was a screen up on the top balcony, showing short descriptions of what the actors were working on, what the section was about. This first section was entitled “Crown”.

The singing/chanting/droning changed from time to time, but that’s probably the least easy part to remember in detail. The next piece of text was also the first time an actor moved from their chair – Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter and telling us her point of view. This was interestingly staged. Lady Macbeth moved outside the circle of chairs and prowled round them, giving us an insight into her ruthlessness and ambition. As she came round to the front, she was saying some lines which appear to address her husband directly, although we know he isn’t there, but in fact she was able to speak them to the actor playing Macbeth. She completed the speech and the circle at the same time. I was very aware of her isolation, and that she was actually speaking only to herself, which doesn’t always happen with soliloquies.

Next up (literally) was Macbeth, and “If t’were done when ‘tis done…..”. (Chanting still on the go.) This was very interesting. Again, the rhythm of his speech intertwined with the music, and heightened the sense of his emotional journey. And, unlike Lady Macbeth, who returned to the same place, he ends up sitting in the only other empty chair, a sign of his movement as a character. I also found that the empty chair at the start reminded me of Banquo’s seat at the feast.

Finally, we had a song, and then that section was finished. The actors stood up, and removed the chairs, while the director came on to talk with us. First, he apologised to anyone who had come tonight to see the play Macbeth, as that wasn’t what they would be doing. His troupe’s work is based on a tradition of performance in Poland going back to the 1920s or 30s. Never mind 6 weeks rehearsals, this lot get 2 or 3 years! Basically, it’s ready when it’s ready. There are three strands which they explore and weave together to produce the final piece – music, text, movement. What they were doing tonight was to show us some of the work so far, and explore some facets of the play through sound, movement and text, to get a better understanding of what’s going on, and what works and what doesn’t.

The next section he introduced as “Cauldron”, where they explored the magical, witchcraft aspects. Seven witches sat down, with a bundle of poles, also used later. The chanting and keening portrayed grief at first then changed and became stronger. Not sure what that was about, but I did get a sense of the witches being desperately unhappy women – no families of their own, perhaps?

There’s no particular order now. We saw men waving poles around. They had long strips of cloth ranging from red through pink to white attached to them, so they made a beautiful, swirling pattern. Their movements reminded me of Tai Chi.

Family – another section. The actors stood in a family pose with men standing, women sitting and children at the feet. They sang a more cheerful song, while Macbeth’s fear of Banquo’s future success gnaws at his vitals – God, that man can suffer.

Lady Macbeth was being chased by a witch/demon, who grabs at her from behind. Perhaps they repeated this a few too many times? This leads into the “Come, evil spirits..” routine, and gave me the idea that Lady Macbeth is cracking up from the moment she gets that letter. Letters in Shakespeare are usually bad news – he’s a terrible advert for the Post Office – and this one’s a corker! Her madness is evident in the way she conjures the spirits, and there’s also a sense of her later, obvious madness and sleepwalking as being her own creation through the spell she casts.

Malcolm meeting Macduff, with news from Ross, is played out round and on a set of floor mats, and lines are spoken as the actors are tumbling, turning cartwheels, etc. Their breath control must be amazing. I was still very moved by the news of Lady Macduff and all the little Macduffs’ fate.

They used dissonance – half tones – to show Macbeth’s increasing madness. Well, yes, you would go mad if you had sounds like that crashing through your brain all the time. Eeugh! But brilliantly performed – that kind of dissonance is hard to sing. Steve reckons he knows why Macbeth goes mad – it’s because he’s got migraines.

Macbeth and the dagger scene – three actors surround him, and seem to entrap him, so he can’t get out – guardian devils? They move backwards and forwards in a visceral dance, the devils constantly blocking his escape. Once he’s resolved and steadies, they steady, and then leave, knowing he’s set on his path.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth inviting Banquo to dinner and checking what he’s doing in the meantime, was followed by Man & Horse – Banquo being killed while out riding. The movements here were also balletic and effective.

Banquet scene – I thought it would be Banquo’s feast, but no, it was the original one with Duncan.

At times, they used only music to create an image. At one point, Lady Macbeth was tying herself up in ribbons attached to a pole.

Everyone was sitting on tables and chairs at the end, then reformed the circle for another bit of “Crown”, standing this time. There was more fighting with poles – Hells Gate – and they end up throwing the poles to Macbeth, who was perched on top of the stack of furniture.

While this description is quite jumbled, the sections made more sense at the time. I was very impressed with the actors’ dedication. Working on this stuff for so long may seen self-indulgent, but it takes a lot of commitment, and the results were immensely powerful, if not always pleasant (e.g. dissonance). I would be keen to see some of their other work, or indeed this production, once it comes to fruition.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me