06 June 2010

Macbeth - Globe Theatre, Friday 4th June 2010

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is one of King Duncan's greatest war captains. Upon returning from a battle with the rebellious Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches. A prophecy is given to them: Macbeth is hailed as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King; Banquo is hailed as the father of kings to come. With that, the witches evaporate into the mists. Both men nervously laugh off the prophecies until Duncan informs Macbeth that he is to assume Cawdor's title as a reward for his service to the king. When Lady Macbeth is informed of the events, she determines to push her husband's resolve in the matter—she wants him to take his fate into his own hands and make himself king. If Duncan happens to be inconveniently in the way....
Macbeth at first is reluctant to do harm to Duncan. However, when Duncan makes arrangements to visit the castle, the opportunity presents itself too boldly to ignore. Pressed on by his wife, they plot Duncan's death. Lady Macbeth gets Duncan's attendants drunk; Macbeth will slip in with his dagger, kill the king, and plant the dagger on the drunken guards. Macbeth, in a quiet moment alone, imagines he sees a bloody dagger appear in the air; upon hearing the tolling bells, he sets to work. Immediately Macbeth feels the guilt and shame of his act, as does Lady Macbeth, who nonetheless finds the inner strength to return to Duncan's chamber to plant the dagger on the attendants when Macbeth refuses to go back in there. When the body is discovered, Macbeth immediately slays the attendants—he says out of rage and grief—in order to silence them. Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan's sons, both flee Scotland (fearful for their own lives). To everyone else, it appears that the sons have been the chief conspirators, and Macbeth is crowned King of Scotland, thus fulfilling the witches' prophecy. Banquo, however, has suspicions of his own based on their encounter with the witches.
Macbeth knows of Banquo's suspicions and the reasons for them; he is also wary of the second prophecy concerning Banquo's offspring. As he prepares for a celebratory banquet on his coronation, Macbeth hires assassins to get rid of Banquo and Fleance, his son. Banquo is murdered that night, but Fleance escapes into the darkness. As Macbeth sits down to the feast, the bloody ghost of Banquo silently torments him, which causes him great despair. Meanwhile, Macduff has fled to England because he too suspects Macbeth of foul play. Macbeth, once a man of greatness, transforms into a man whose conscience has fled him. Upon learning of Macduff's flight, Macbeth exacts revenge by having Macduff's entire household butchered. Macduff grieves, but joins up with Malcolm in England to raise an army against Macbeth.

Macbeth is given another prophecy by the witches as he prepares for Malcolm's assault. His throne is safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and he will not die by the hand of any man born of a woman. Macbeth feels confident in his chances for victory at this pronouncement. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, has been slowly driven mad by her dreams in the wake of killing Duncan. She sleepwalks, wringing her hands together, and inadvertently reveals her part in the murder. As the English armies approach, Macbeth learns that many of his lords are deserting him, and that Lady Macbeth has died. On top of this, a messenger brings news that Malcolm's army is approaching under the cover of boughs, which they have cut from the trees of Birnam Wood. Resigned now to his fate, Macbeth grimly sets to battle.
None, however, can bring Macbeth down. Finally, Macduff meets him on the field of battle. Macbeth laughs hollowly, telling him of the witches' prophecy: no man born of a woman may slay him. As Macduff retorts, he was "from my mother's womb untimely ripp'd," meaning he was delivered by a Caesarian section (and hence, not technically born of a woman). Grimly, Macbeth presses on. The play ends with the death of Macbeth; Macduff greets the others bearing Macbeth's head. Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland, restoring his father's bloodline to the throne.


Witches: Janet Fullerlove, Simone Kirby, Karen Anderson
Duncan: James Clyde
Malcolm: James McArdle
Donalbain: Craig Vye
Macduff: Keith Dunphy
Cawdor: Ken Shorter
Macbeth: Elliot Cowan
Banquo: Christian Bradley
Lady Macbeth: Laura Rogers
Porter: Frank Scantori

Creative team:
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Music: Orlando Gough
Movement/Choreography: Javier de Frutos
Costumes: Poppy Hall

Ironically, the one Shakespeare play I really enjoyed reading (I had flu so was confined to bed, but managed to get through the entire play in one go) is the one that I have the most trouble with when seeing it performed. With a lot of Shakespeare, I find that unless one knows the text well or steel yourself to concentrate really hard on what is actually being said, there is always the danger of letting the words go through one ear and out the other without going through the brain. Every time I’ve seen Macbeth, my brain seems to shut down and all I can hear is words – lots and lots and lots of them in a seemingly endless progression. And so it was with this production – which I shamefacedly admit deserved more effort from me. Perhaps it was because the very hot weather had made me too tired to really concentrate, or because I find being a Groudling exhausting (three hours is a very long time to stand in one place), or whether the strange setup (an enormous circular tarpaulin is suspended around the stage and the Groundlings poke their heads through, meaning you can’t sit down or all you’ll see is other people’s headless bodies in the gloom underneath the tarp) was physically weighing me down and making my shoulders ache but I really had trouble engaging with this. And I shouldn’t have done because it was artistically and technically a brilliant production and seemed to go down a storm with everybody else (Him Indoors is still raving about it – or maybe he’s just raving; like with Shakespeare, sometimes I just stop listening!).

It was probably the goriest Macbeth I’ve ever seen – shares in fake blood have probably gone through the roof since this opened. Blood and dirt and gore were seemingly everywhere (as was saliva, but I’ll come back to that). And it was certainly the most unsettling staging, with many characters making their entrances, unseen, from below the stage and coming up through holes in the tarpaulin, even before the performance had actually begun (I really liked the idea of having the three witches terrorise the audience – someone even had their purse pinched and waved gleefully from the stage). Various hunky gentlemen with their torsos smeared in gore writhed around the stage – were their throes the agonies of birth or death? Or both? A misshapen, hairy troll (later identified as Macbeth’s gatekeeper) patrolled the stage. So it all got off to an interesting start, and got gorier and gorier as the body count started to rise. And then Elliot Cowan strode on in the title role – hunky, lithe and butch as all get-out (MacBuff, perhaps?). But I couldn’t hear him; his diction was so poor that it was like listening to those sounds you hear at the swimming pool when you duck your head under the water - "buhBWAH bwahbwahbwahBWAH" (one of the pro reviews has suggested he spend less time at the gym and more time with the vocal coach). When he was audible his lower face was so slathered in saliva that he looked like a ravening dog; as I was in the front row and unable to move because of the tarpaulin arrangement I spent a lot of time worrying that that I was going to get sprayed in it. And when you can’t hear your Macbeth you’re in trouble. So, regrettably, I started to switch my brain off, relying on visuals to carry me through.
Fortunately there was plenty for the eye to engage with – the “look” of this production is fantastic. The costumes are all seemingly cobbled together from modern dress, altered to give a vaguely medieval feel, distressed and tattered and down at heel. The three witches wore Globe Stewards tabards, muddied and battered and ragged, giving the audience the disquieting impression that, within the performance area, the modern world was in abeyance and that they were in charge of us, controlling and directing our perceptions. Lady Macbeth wore, for the most part, a simple analgesics white shift, topped with a loose crocheted top in steel grey that suggested both cocktail frock and chain mail. The simple black net curtain, moving around a circular track hung high above the stage, was an effective space divider and was used very creatively as an actual curtain, a wall, the dividing line between worlds and, when twisted into a rope-like shape, as tree trunks. And there’s much use made of the holes in the stage as entrances, exits, graves and, in the famous “hubble bubble, toil and trouble” scene, as the cauldron itself, into which Macbeth is stripped and dipped, like a lamb being disinfected before going off to the slaughterhouse.

There are some fine performances; although Mr. Cowan can’t be heard a lot of the time, he certainly invests the part with considerable emotional oomph. Janet Fullerlove, Simone Kirby and Karen Anderson proved that the three witches are, collectively, a major character in the drama, directing and controlling and ever-present as they shape the story to their own ends. By contrast, Laura Rogers seemed to make slight impression as Lady Macbeth – the sleepwalking scene was, for me, not nearly intense or controlled enough. And by the end, I felt rather like I was sleepwalking myself. Which I shouldn’t have been, because this production deserved better from me.

What the critics thought:





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