Bingo – April 2010

6/10

By Edward Bond

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th April 2010

This play is just tolerable, thanks to the second half opening scene in the tavern, with Ben Jonson and Will getting totally blotto, and giving us most of the play’s sparse jokes in one chunk. This was a very good production, mind you, and the performances were all splendid, but Edward Bond can be so dreary. I suppose he feels he has something to say about life, or in this case about money and death, but he overestimates his abilities in my view.

I saw this one on my own for once, as Steve, bless him, had come down with a bad cold and couldn’t stop coughing. The performance was the quieter, apart from a mobile going off during the closing stages! It’s strange not to have our usual discussion afterwards, but as we’ve booked again for this one he’ll have a chance to catch up later. I’ll be interested to see how the performance changes in that time.

The set was entertaining in itself. The first scenes are set in the garden of New House, Shakespeare’s retirement place in the country. There were large hedges at the back with a central opening, symmetrical beds, indicated by woodchip mulch, on either side, and also at the front. The stage had angled corners on two levels and was cut away to provide triangular steps at the front and side. There was a gate front right corner, and a bench back left.

For the rest of the first half, there was an unspecified location. The hedges were on a revolve, and on the other side were bricks, which were now at the back. In front of them was a wooden pillar, and the poor Young Woman was set up there, now dead. She did at least have a wooden headrest to help her stay still. The gate and bench were removed, and the woodchip scattered across the stage. I thought it might be a barn at first, but the gallows with grass at the base suggested an outdoor scene.

The second half starts in the tavern, and the front of the revolve now has walls either side and a fireplace in the middle, thrust forward. There were two tables and assorted stools, Ben and Will at the one to the right. For the next scene, outside in the snow, the revolve turned to give us an open space – don’t remember what was at the back – and a pile of fake snow which was swept vigorously forward to cover the stage (and the feet of the folk in the front row). Simple and effective.

The final scene is set in Will’s bedroom, so it took a minute or two to set up. The walls are back, but this time with a sturdy-looking door between them. There’s a bed to the left, an upright chair to the right, and a small, very small writing desk in front, covered in papers.

The story covers Shakespeare’s last months in Stratford, and brings in the enclosures and the hardships facing the poor at that time. Shakespeare is approached by William Coombe to agree to the common land being enclosed, and eventually agrees to that provided his rents are guaranteed. A young woman wanders into their lives, who shows us the restrictions on movement between parishes. There are protests against the enclosures, and in the meantime, Will is in a kind of depression as he toils towards death. He doesn’t get on with his family, loathes them in fact, so living in Stratford is torture for him, though he no longer wants to be in London. Frankly, just about everyone is miserable.

Bond is a political writer, so there’s a bit of drum-banging going on, but on the whole I’d have to agree with Patrick Stewart’s comment at the post-show that this was one area where Bond was scrupulously balanced. It is, after all, the area he’s most interested in, and he does understand the other points of view, at least well enough to present them fairly. I’d also agree that it’s the only area that’s balanced. I was very aware that many of the characters simply don’t communicate with each other, and while that’s certainly a valid situation to demonstrate and explore on stage, it doesn’t necessarily work if the lack of communication extends to the audience as well. Surely Judith could have been given more opportunity to express her feelings about her absentee father? Surely she could have made better points about his lack of care towards his family? There was enough to hint at the past injuries, on both sides, but I never felt the personal was anything more than a side issue for Bond.

Unfortunately, the political side also felt underwritten. One of the main protesters, Son, son of Old Woman and Old Man, Will’s servants (God, these names are dreadful!) was so caught up in religious rhetoric, and spoke with such a strong accent that I lost most of his lines. I got the anger, but the arguments against enclosure were decidedly lacking. In fact, the best argument against was the wonderfully sleazy performance by Jason Watkins as William Coombe, the main mover in the land grab campaign. I will just say that the accents were all fine, as far as I could tell, and if I’d remembered, I would have liked to ask about them during the post-show, but they did make it hard to follow the dialogue at times.

So it wasn’t the greatest evening, but the time did pass fairly quickly, and we had some laughs along the way.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Waiting For Godot – August 2009

5/10

By Samuel Beckett

Directed by Sean Matthias

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Saturday 1st August 2009

I’m so relieved to have finally seen this play. I’m not a fan of Beckett’s work – I think he’s hugely overrated – but I did want to see this one in case it changed my mind and awakened me to the riches others evidently see in his oeuvre. It didn’t. But now, bliss, oh bliss, I can ignore Beckett productions with a clear conscience, confident that there’s nothing for me there. (But then there’s Endgame, Richard Briers’ farewell to the stage…)

The set was interesting. The stage had been built out a little (row A was lost) and on either side at the front was an arched entrance topped by two dummy boxes, designed to echo the real boxes next to them. However the stage ones were dusty and dilapidated, and the narrow bit of roof that stretched between the sets of boxes was crumbling away. There was also a lighting gantry stretching across the space which emphasised the theatricality of the performance. The back wall was of brick, with a plank door to the left hand side. A short distance in front of it was a crumbling wall, and since Estragon climbed up that way to get onto the stage I assume there was a ditch in between them. The stage floor was mainly planks, painted dusty white, and with a steepish rake from the wall down to the middle. The rest was flat. There was a gap in the raked planks approximately in front of the rear door, and a makeshift bench forward of that. Right of centre, at the bottom of the rake, stood the tree – a scrawny trunk and several windblown branches, totally bare. The lighting suggested various times of day, including evening and night time; each half ended with the two leads in a contracting circle of moonlight.

If there is a plot to this play, I, along with the rest of the universe, have yet to discover it. Two tramps, Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) and Estragon (Ian McKellen) spend two evenings waiting by a tree for a chap called Godot. If he comes, they’re saved. If not, they have to come back again and wait the next evening. There’s a sense of endless repetition, coupled with forgetfulness and uncertainty – was it yesterday they met Pozzo and Lucky, or is this the first time they’ve seen them? (And, frankly, who cares?)

Pozzo (Simon Callow) and Lucky (Ronald Pickup) are master and slave. On day one, we see Pozzo treating Lucky badly, as well as being ‘treated’ to a very long speech by Lucky which appeared to contain some garbled dialogue concerning the nature of existence. Possibly. (I found it pretty boring.) On day two, Pozzo has gone blind, and when he and Lucky arrive they fall over, leading to a surfeit of falling over gags. On both days, after they leave, a young boy clambers out from underneath the wall to give the tramps a message from Mr. Godot – he won’t be coming tonight, they have to wait again tomorrow evening. And that’s basically it. Nothing to get excited about or even stay awake for. There was a surprising and entirely necessary amount of humour throughout, mainly during the banter between the two old men. They were a regular old couple, been together for years. And that’s about all I can say about them.

Apart from the funny bits, I found it terribly dreary and I had to stop myself from checking my watch too often. Still, the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it and I did like the entertaining way they took their bows, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen acting like a couple of song and dance men. Even so, it was good to be outside in the rain and heading home.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – August 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th August 2007

We didn’t have the best of starts to tonight’s performance. The journey over was done in pouring rain, and we squelched our way to the theatre only to find the foyer jam-packed with other theatregoers as the doors hadn’t opened yet, and only ten minutes to go before the scehduled start. When we finally got seated, I was amazed to find that we were only a few minutes after the start time, and the play itself began fairly soon after that.

I had been worried that the warm-up might affect my enjoyment of the play (I can get a real sulk on me at times) but I was proved absolutely, completely, and blissfully wrong when we were treated to one of the best Twelfth Night’s I’m ever likely to see. I was puzzled at first to see three men come on stage, one standing at the back, one, the butler or manservant, off to one side, and another attendant sitting on the other side. The music, played on the phonograph (see below) was lovely and sad (Elgar’s Sospiri, per the program notes) and then I realised! We’d seen two productions (Chekov International Theatre Festival meets Cheek by Jowl, and Propeller) where the opening scene was the aftermath of the shipwreck, and I’d forgotten (oh, so quickly) that the opening scene in the generally accepted text is Orsino’s “If music be the food of love…”. Blow me down with a feather, we were not only getting Shakespeare’s language, we seemed to be getting his version of the play as well! What a turn up! Recovering my composure quickly, I focused on watching this performance with an open mind, with one further adjustment later.

Best to describe the set now, before I get too carried away. At the back of the stage was a wall of glass panels, as in a Victorian style large conservatory, with three sets of double doors. A curved walkway in front led to some steps on our right, and below these was a beautiful floor design, suggestive of many things. The interior was blue and shiny, looking like a pool or a water splash. There were tendrils of water spiralling out from this centre, and at first I wasn’t sure if they were wet or dry. Dry, as it turned out. Interlaced with the water spirals was a rough, textured shoreline, looking like sandbars, with one or two areas of planking, as in a jetty. In front of the walkway were a couple of patches of sand grasses, left and centre, and to the right of the pool, on the slant, was a bench, while on the left was a box of some kind (turned out to be a piano), also on the slant, as if half buried in the sand. These gave a wonderful sense of flotsam and jetsam, the after effects of the shipwreck, as well as being practical stage furniture. With the glassy blue of the pond and the greyish colour of the sandbars, there was also a hint of winter and a frozen pond, which was quite appropriate at the end when Feste wraps his coat around himself for the final song. And of course they also suggested the sea, and the beach. This was a masterpiece of design.

Above all this hung several items which were lowered to illustrate and enhance various parts of the story (this is a bit like The Generation Game – can I remember what was on the conveyer belt?). There was a model of a large ship (four funnels – possibly the Titanic?), a life belt (according to Steve, it said SS Rodrigo – the name Sebastian uses when he’s first rescued), a toy dog on wheels, an old style phonograph with trumpet loudspeaker, a plant pot with a tuft of very dead-looking plant, a candelabra, and a pair of tannoy loudspeakers. I will try to remember to mention each item as it’s lowered down. I’ll just mention now that during the interval the chair and piano were removed, so the set for the second half was as for the first but without the integral seating. Costumes were Edwardian glamour, with a strong touch of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Martin Turner as Orsino listened to the music for quite a while. This was no hardship. At the end, he gave us the lines beautifully, and I got the impression of an older, world-weary Orsino, who’s perhaps in love with Olivia because there’s nothing else to fill his days. Let’s face it, he doesn’t seem to have spent much time with her up to now, so his references to “fancy” may imply there’s no real basis for his love – an elderly Romeo falling for a younger Rosalind perhaps? All the lines were delivered well, throughout the play, and I heard far more than I usually do, which made it all the richer. I also liked Orsino’s moodiness when he wants the music, then doesn’t, and also when he changes mood at the end of the scene, from being upbeat about Olivia’s capacity for love, to being gloomy again. Perhaps he’d just reminded himself of what he hadn’t got?

Viola (Laura Rees) was carried on by her sea captain, and set down in the middle of the stage. She seemed a perky waif, a bit dishevelled by being nearly drowned, but not particularly affected by her experiences. This was where I had to do another mental adjustment to stop myself from failing to appreciate the performance. I’d been used to recent Violas being more emotional and more obviously grief-stricken, but this performance was different. This Viola was showing more resourcefulness and humour, and fewer outward signs of grief, and it was both perfectly valid and a very good performance. I still found the “My brother, he is in Elysium” very moving, and had a little sniffle. (I had several more sniffles and an outright sob later on – great fun.) This was a very good scene for telling us where we are, who the relevant characters are, and what the situation is.

Another benefit of this production is that it’s an ensemble piece along with Macbeth. As a result, we have such a tremendous cast for this play that many of the relatively minor parts were played by hugely talented and skilled actors. With such a beefing up of all the roles, the whole production soared to new heights, and there was not one weak area.

The next scene showed this up very well. We get to meet Sir Toby (Paul Shelley), Maria (Suzanne Burden), and later Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Scott Handy). Maria is doing her best to warn Sir Toby that his drunken revels will get him into trouble, but he’s not bothered. A couple of maids have brought on the tea tray, and he has a cup of tea, flirting with the maids as he does. He also tips some whisky from his hip flask into the cup. It’s clear he likes a good time, and that Maria has a soft spot for him, though not as completely as later?

Sir Andrew arrives, fresh from bathing, judging by his swimsuit. Scott Handy played him marvellously well. It’s a difficult part, because on the one hand he is a fool, and the butt of many a joke, but he is also hard done by, and his relationship with Sir Toby is one of the darker aspects of the play. Here we have a Sir Andrew who’s infatuated with Sir Toby, always trying to be like him, to copy what he says and does, and who is all too easy to gull. I got the impression he’s up from the country, with lots of money and not much in the way of brains, almost childlike. It was possible to laugh at him, but I did feel very moved by his “I was adored once too”; it suggested a missed opportunity that might have made his life turn out very differently. The dancing that he did, in fact all the dancing in the production, was contemporary to the setting – early 1920s. Sir Andrew’s efforts included a kind of vertical doggy-paddle, and were suitably funny.

Back at Orsino’s court, the next scene was done as a picnic, with flasks of tea and a rug. Then we see Maria chiding Feste (Michael Feast). He’s carrying a large suitcase, and is on the tart and cynical side. He certainly knows what’s going on between people, as his comments about Sir Toby and Maria indicate.

Olivia (Kate Fleetwood) arrives with her entourage. Malvolio (Patrick Stewart) is holding her umbrella, and is dressed like a butler. I noticed he had that slight head tremor which is often associated with very rigid people. Olivia is more sprightly than is usual, and really does enjoy Feste’s wit, smiling if not actually laughing, and sitting beside him on one of the benches. She’s quite strict in rebuffing Malvolio about his attitude. Malvolio is played with a strong Scottish accent, which fits the lines perfectly, and reminds me of a dourer version of Mr Hudson. He’s completely contemptuous of Feste, and we can see the battle lines being drawn already.

Now Viola arrives, and we see several attempts by Olivia to find out who this messenger is. Finally Malvolio reports on him in a very long-winded, pedantic way, and is most surprised later to be told to leave along with the rest of the servants. He peers back through the window as he leaves, which got a good laugh.

For once, Maria isn’t asked to put on her veil to confuse Viola (it’s not in the text), and despite this, the scene worked perfectly well, with Viola/Cesario’s questions about who the lady of the house is seeming more impertinent, but also more practical. This scene was very brisk, and although it lost some of the details I’m used to from other productions, it did get across how Viola’s passion for Orsino is conveyed in her speeches to Olivia, and it’s this that Olivia falls for. It’s as if Viola was wooing Olivia herself, and yet she’s just expressing her own love for Orsino. I also got the need Viola has to see Olivia’s face – she wants to see what she’s up against, and finds the competition pretty stiff, looks-wise.

Antonio and Sebastian’s scene is set in a railway station – lowering of tannoy speakers. Antonio is really keen on Sebastian, and dashes after him to catch the same train. When Malvolio catches Cesario, I was aware that she covers up for Olivia by not disclosing that she left no ring. Again, Viola is pretty cheerful through her working out that Olivia is in love with her boyish disguise, but it all came across clearly.

Now we have Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing in the wee small hours. Feste joins in, and again the phonograph is deployed. (It had a slight problem which meant we heard it scratching away for a bit, but that was soon sorted.) Michael Feast demonstrated what a good voice he has with Feste’s song, and when Maria arrives, there are two or three other servants with her. We’re treated to a dance number, with everyone joining in except Sir Andrew. Malvolio arrives, and puts a stop to the party atmosphere. He’s very unpleasant, especially to Maria, and I could see how he’s set himself up for their revenge. Maria’s device is clearly thought up as she speaks, and much appreciated by the two knights.

Back at the Duke’s, the music is played by two of Orsino’s servants – one on the piano buried in the sand, and the other playing a guitar? (possibly – it’s been a while). Viola’s suffering is clear to see, and Orsino obviously feels a strong affection for this boy, but without any of the uneasiness that’s often shown. Viola is actually kissed three times in this production – once by Orsino, once by Olivia in a later scene, which she doesn’t exactly fight off, and once by Antonio, which really throws her. She also kisses Orsino once herself, at the end.

Now for the big set piece of the play – the gulling of Malvolio. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian are concealed behind an inconspicuous huge red umbrella or parasol, which may not be out of place on a beach, but is perhaps the most unusual hiding place I’ve seen for this bit. Naturally, they keep poking their heads up to say their lines, and Sir Andrew keeps his up too long at one point. When Malvolio “revolves”, Sir Andrew is in plain view, but Malvolio is so wrapped up in himself, he doesn’t see him at first. By the time he does a slow double take, Sir Andrew has had time to get into hiding again.

Patrick Stewart’s performance as Malvolio is the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Patrick Stewart doesn’t hold back with playing that side of his character. He insults Feste, has a go at Sir Toby (quite reasonably, in the circumstances), and threatens Maria, as well as raising suits against others, such as Viola’s sea captain. In this scene, he’s positively leering as he describes his idea of married life with Olivia, and he’s even got the proof that such things can happen – he shows us a copy of the Tatler where the pictures prove that “the lady of Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe”. We’re all ready to see him taken down a peg or eighteen, when he chances on the letter. The first four lines are written on the outside of the letter, and then we get to the prose bit inside. The reading of the lines was excellent, and the scene was immensely funny. His reactions to the contents inside were fantastic – he’s overjoyed to find she loves him. Malvolio didn’t practise his smiling at this point, so we get to see the fully rehearsed version later. I wasn’t always aware of the reactions from the others, as Malvolio was so funny.

After the interval, with the set slightly adjusted, we get a very evocative seaside interlude, as Feste does his Punch and Judy for a couple of youngsters, another child has her balloon popped by an unpleasant young man, the policeman strolls around chatting to one or two folk, and all is summer jollity. Sebastian and Antonio treat us to scene 3 (before we’ve had one and two), and as they talk, a gentleman who’s been reclining on the far side of the beach, reading his paper, seems to recognise Antonio. He goes over to speak to the policeman, indicating Antonio, and although they don’t do anything more at this time, it’s obvious he’s been rumbled. As everyone disappears, and Feste is packing up his folding Punch and Judy kit into his suitcase, Viola arrives, and starts Act 3 scene 1 proper, by asking Feste if he lives by his tabor. Again, the wit is lively, and sets us up nicely for the next part.

When Olivia and Maria enter, Sir Andrew is well taken with Viola’s words to Olivia, and it’s clear he intends to mangle together a sentence using them all as soon as he can. When they’re told to leave, he’s made at least one failed attempt to give Olivia a present, and he lingers as long as possible behind the glass doors, muttering “odours”, “pregnant”, etc.

After Viola and Olivia have had another verbal tussle, it’s the turn of Sir Toby and Fabian to set up Sir Andrew for the duel with Cesario. Sir Toby’s unkindness is starting to show more clearly, and his character’s darker side is coming to the fore. Next Maria prepares us for the entrance of Malvolio.

Olivia herself comes on first, and we can see she’s being seriously affected by her infatuation with Cesario. Her hair is starting to come down, and she’s much more emotional than any Olivia I’ve ever seen. Later on, she’s actually crying because she can’t get what she wants. This time, though, her additional edginess works really well to set up her reactions to Malvolio’s preposterous appearance.

Maria and another maid are with her when Malvolio arrives, and they spend most of their time trying to shield her from him. At one point, Olivia’s standing on the chair with the maids in front of her. Malvolio’s in a kilt (naturally, given the accent), and his stockings are indeed yellow, and seriously cross-gartered. His first grin got a good laugh, and he continues to grimace for all he’s worth throughout the scene. When Olivia asks if he will go to bed, he runs his hand up her leg. He also brandishes his legs, and even waggles them when he’s lying on the ground. They’re all running away from him, but he keeps on going, and when they run off at the end, lifts his kilt to flash them. It was very funny.

Now they’ve gone, he can admit to the tightness of the garters, and sits down to untie them. He’s tremendously dismissive of Sir Toby, and as he reties his garters in order to leave, I can see that he’s tying them the wrong way round – effectively tying his knees together. Sure enough, when he gets up to make a dignified exit, he finds he can’t move his legs separately, and has to make an uncomfortable decision. Does he redo them, or does he hop off the stage, hoping no one will notice? Being the kind of character he is, and not wanting to admit to a mistake, he chooses to hop, and we were in fits of laughter as he tries to maintain his dignity while hopping to the edge of the stage with his knees together. There’s another decision point as he comes to the steps and realises what he’s let himself in for. It’s a tribute to Patrick Stewart’s fitness that he’s able to have Malvolio, after an agonising pause for thought, hop down the steps and off the stage. It just about brought the house down. I have no idea what the other characters were up to – I only had eyes for Malvolio. Brilliant.

The duel was good fun as well. It’s clear neither duellist wants to fight, and again we see the unpleasant side of Sir Toby. Antonio breaks up the fight, and when he asks for his money back, we can see Viola grasping the possibility that Sebastian is alive very quickly. It’s also the first time Cesario’s integrity has been questioned, though not the last. It’s about here that I started seeing this as a farce, with all the threads being carefully woven to give us the marvellous comedy of their unravelling.

The abuse of Malvolio was unpleasant, and I felt he was very badly treated, despite all his own unpleasantness earlier. It was clear that Sir Toby realised he couldn’t keep this sort of behaviour up any longer.

Sebastian was also very good. He handled the possibility of his madness remarkably well, as well as his sudden marriage to a beautiful woman – he’s got some brains, that boy. For the final revelation, Viola is standing at the front of the stage, with Orsino in front of her so that Sebastian can’t see her when he rushes on from the back. When they do see each other, and circle round, warily, I was sobbing with the emotion of it all. At the end, Antonio leaves the stage, a free man but without the man he loves, while the others gather behind the glass walls of the conservatory to celebrate. Feste comes out to sing us his final song, and that’s it.

Well, I didn’t manage to put in where each item was lowered down, but that’s tough luck – I’ve written quite enough for one play. I particularly liked the excellent reactions from the spare characters on stage – often they don’t seem to be fully participating, but tonight they were completely involved and responding noticeably to the main action. I so want this production to transfer, but sadly, it seems it’s only the Macbeth that will be going to London. A shame.

The post-show was interesting, and we found out that Michael Feast apparently suggested that Patrick Stewart play Malvolio with a Scottish accent. With Macbeth, there were a lot of men crammed into one small dressing room over at the Minerva, and they had a running joke going with Scottish accents. After the suggestion, Patrick Stewart tried it out, and found it fitted the lines perfectly, so the rest evolved from that. I don’t remember much more of what was said now, but the performance will live on in my memory for a long time. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to enjoy future productions, and if they’re half as good as this one I’ll count myself lucky.

© 2007 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