This is a perfectly serviceable production of Macbeth that would make a good introduction to young people who are new to the work and to Shakespeare as a whole. However, it does not take you to the visceral heart of darkness as it should in this play, and as a result ‘present fears’ never developed into ‘horrible imaginings’. The theatre within the Bussey Building has a close intimacy and potentially creepy atmosphere, but this was not channelled as it might be, at least on press night. One has to hope that the groove of evil becomes more evident as the run progresses.
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play by some measure and generally works best when performed straight through without interval as the ‘thriller’ it in some ways is and has to be. Even if, as here, there is an interval it really needs to be performed with snap and pace in a single arc from the appearance of the witches through the disastrous feast broken up by Banquo’s ghost.
Even the layout of the text on the page suggests this, as in the broken half-lines of dialogue around the murder of Duncan and the use of enjambment. The clues are all there if the director is willing to explore the full dimensions of the text and avoid assault-course militaristic naturalism. Unfortunately that is not the choice taken here.
We are intended to be in a post-nuclear, dystopian Scotland where social order is only painfully resuming. Fly-tip debris and detritus litters the stage, costume is grunge and body armour mostly, and the colour palette all shades of black and grey of different intensity. However this context is an initial setting rather than closely integrated into the production, which in many respects remains quite traditional in the hands of director Paul Tomlinson.
We start promisingly with a fine trio of witches, well vocally differentiated and delivering their lines with conviction rather than for comic effect. It has become customary to see the witches more as emanations of Macbeth’s or the audience’s imagination rather than embodied characters, and this is one area where it is a relief to see a production that trusts the actors to come up with something convincing.
It is also an effective bracketing device to bring the weird sisters back at the very end of the play and also to present the procession of future kings of Scotland as something that only blindfolded Macbeth sees. This last may be making a virtue out of budgetary necessity, but sometimes that actually provides a stimulus to greater insight.
The main problem with this production is lack of attention to the detail and poetry of the text. Though all the actors project their lines clearly and plausibly, the vocal dynamics, especially in the soliloquies, are simply too flat and under-developed to command attention or make you listen to familiar language with a fresh ear.
There is a fear of heightened language here, of sounding too much like the late John Gielgud, that simply amounts in the end to the wrong theory of naturalism. When this is coupled to slightly too slow a pace, when these mainly short scenes should flow rapidly into one another, and do not, then the evening begins to drag.
This is a pity because the physical language of the play is excellently developed. The fight scenes directed by Jonathan Holby are supple and imaginative, and the various murders and assaults are carried off by a cast that is uniformly good in filling the space with action. To this reviewer, the murder of Banquo and of the Macduff family has rarely seemed so immediate, uncomfortable and compelling in a theatre, and the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the feast succeeded in getting the audience involved in Macbeth’s terrified vision, not least because of the visual drama of a face covered in blood contrasting so vividly with the actor’s startling blue eyes.
The second half containing the final two acts worked rather better because there is simply more action than poetry or atmosphere, where the cast clearly felt more naturally at home. It was also dominated by the excellent performance of Jared Fortune as Macduff who wrested many more layers out of this rough-hewn part than is usually the case. There were also plenty of lovely cameos from children drawn from the Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School.
There are few outstanding performances here but a generally high standard of acting. It is refreshing to see the two leads taken for a change by much younger actors than usual. There is no reason why the Macbeths should be middle-aged. In the title role Henry Proffit was more convincing as the vigorous bludgeoning soldier than as the moody equivocator of the early acts. We need to see at some point a cross-over point when to return across the sea of blood is more tedious than to continue, and it is hard to follow that journey here.
Likewise, and in a way in reverse, Sadie Pepperell’s Lady Macbeth needs to have a wider emotional range, starting with an unsustainable imperious certainty and crumbling gradually into the very infirmity of purpose with which she upbraids her husband. That said, her sleepwalking scene was admirably delivered with a focus, stillness and hollowness wholly appropriate to the situation. She also deserves credit for taking on the role of one of the witches too, not a usual casting decision.
The supporting cast of thanes was very consistent and well differentiated, and the same goes for the often-overlooked group of murderers and servants, who all made more of their parts than Shakespeare had given them. As Banquo, Cameron Crighton was a convincing moral and dramatic foil to Macbeth, both tempted and repelled by what the witches offered, and JK Glynn combined the role of Lennox with a neat turn as the Porter, which did not overstay its welcome, as this interlude often does.
Guy Dennys made Malcolm less of a prig than is usually the case, and James Pearse took care of all of the older roles, though his wry doctor had more personality and presence than his royal Duncan.
This is a perfectly serviceable production of the play that would make a good introduction to young people who are new to the work and to Shakespeare as a whole. However, it does not take you to the visceral heart of darkness as it should in this play, and as a result ‘present fears’ never developed into ‘horrible imaginings’.
The theatre within the Bussey Building has a close intimacy and potentially creepy atmosphere, but this was not channelled as it might be, at least on press night. One has to hope that the groove of evil becomes more evident as the run progresses.