Over many years of theatregoing you get to see quite a few productions of Macbeth. Not surprising really, being the magnificent play that it is; I can think of only a few possible rivals for the title “Greatest Play in the English Language”. Naturally, every director wants to do it differently. I’ve seen it done in 20th century dress; I’ve seen it heavily abridged; I’ve seen it with a male Lady Macbeth. In fact, it’s not often you see it without a modern twist of some sort – and that’s one of the things that makes Daniel Evans’ new production at Sheffield stand out – it’s incredibly faithful to Shakespeare’s original. They’ve even kept the Hecate scene in – only the second time I’ve seen it. Although it was a bit odd that Macbeth nips in after Lady Macduff and her boy have been slain and nicks her baby out of the cot; and whenever we see Macbeth towards the end of the play he’s cuddling a mewling infant. Treachery, regicide, homicide, and now cotnapping. Not a nice Thane.
Daniel Evans has staged the play in the round. Instead of the Crucible’s normal backdrop behind the stage, a couple of extra banks of seats recreate a full amphitheatre effect. This adds to the visual impact of some circular images; the witches’ dancing round in a circle, for example; the round centre of the stage at different times becomes a cauldron, a magnificent large round table for Macbeth’s ill-fortuned feast, and a pit from which the apparitions can emerge. It all looks great.
Unfortunately the “in the round” nature contributed to some blocking issues. From my vantage point of seat C17 there were a number of times when a character was speaking and my view of them was completely obscured by actors in front of me. The most irritating example of this was when the aforesaid apparitions are spooked into reality by the witches in a strong ray of light centre stage, which would clearly be a stunning visual effect. At least I think that’s what happened; as First Witch had stubbornly plonked herself in my view line and the only way I could catch a faint glimpse of this coup de theatre was by lunging across Mrs Chrisparkle’s lap, which was the same course of action for the young lad in B17 and the gentleman in A17 and I expect for the person in D17 and so on. Not that they all landed on Mrs C, but you get my drift. It’s a shame because the Witch could have moved just twelve inches to the right and she wouldn’t have obstructed anyone.
Whilst I’m on the subject of technical imperfections, I was also rather disturbed by the off-stage noises during Saturday’s matinee. C17 is the last seat on the row before a handrail and a gap, and below you on the right is one of the entrance and exit paths on to the stage. There really was an awful lot of muttering, clattering and rustling from time to time as actors were getting into position for their entrances down there. Particularly irritating was when they were getting ready for their “Dunsinane” entrance, disguised under twigs and branches, it was incredibly noisy and distracting.
You would think I was very grumpy about this production – I’ve done nothing but complain about it. Well, to conclude this section in this vein – Malcolm is the squeaky clean new hope for Scotland at the end of the play and is often portrayed as a bit wet behind the ears; but this Malcolm is so wet he is positively runny. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of kingliness about him. The other characters that lacked credibility for me were the three witches. Indeed they looked the part very well, but to me they sounded like they’d come straight from a RADA enunciation class. They were far too posh to be dressed as hags and dispensing eye of newt and toe of frog; instead you would expect their cauldron to be filled with Waitrose Organic supplies.
Apart from all that, it’s really good! Macbeth is played by Geoffrey Streatfeild as quite a decent chap at first; quiet, noble, honourable – which makes his first aside, that of his jealous reaction to Malcolm’s becoming Prince of Cumberland, stand out as being a huge character-leap. His duplicity is really well brought to life. One extremely good view I was lucky enough to share involved Mr Streatfeild’s faux-kindly eyes looking straight at me as he exchanged farewells with the trusting Banquo and Fleance, whose honest faces were also turned to me, with Macbeth’s in between them. It was one of those little theatrical moments when a look said it all; it said, “with this smile I send you to your deaths”, and it gave me a shiver down my spine. I also loved the sharp contrast of his change from beaming host to unhinged madman at the sight of Banquo’s ghost – that whole feast scene is brilliantly staged and acted and is definitely a highlight of the production; by the way, the Ghost’s unexpected entrances take your breath away.
As Lady Macbeth, I knew Claudie Blakley was going to be superb, and I wasn’t disappointed. We loved her in the National’s Comedy of Errors earlier this year, and as Lady M she packs exactly the punch you’d expect. This is possibly the most feminine Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen – not in her dress sense, but with some light flirting and her deceptively charming voice you can really see why Macbeth would fall for her. She makes both a convincing hostess but also a damn good bullying wife. All her scenes are immaculately performed, and the final “out damned spot” speech was sufficiently moving actually to make you feel sorry for her. Normally I sense that Lady M gets precisely what she deserves, but with this portrayal you genuinely feel there is a real person suffering there. Good stuff.
The roles of Duncan, Old Man and Siward are all performed by Andrew Jarvis with splendid Shakespearian gusto. As Duncan he was grandly regal, the kind of old man that both a nation and family could love as one – like a benign Lear. As Siward he was stirringly warrior-like, and as the Old Man he reacted very credibly to Macbeth’s weird behaviour at the dining table, trying not to catch his eye, and rescuing bits of his meal off the floor that Macbeth had flung there. Very enjoyable attention to detail.
Another performance I really enjoyed was John Dougall’s Macduff. We’d seen Mr Dougall before in Propeller’s Henry V giving a great performance as the vain French King laid low by England’s might. As Macduff he’s superb – particularly in the moving scene where he slowly realises his little chickens and their dam have been slaughtered, and which develops into very classy belligerence in his fight with Macbeth. You have to hand it to him; during the scene where Ross tells him his family is slain I was already caught up in his excellent delivery when, horror of horrors, a mobile phone went off; both persistently and noisily. Appalling timing! But Mr Dougall did not register it a nanometre. An earthquake could have happened and he was so “in the zone” that he’d have carried on. Brilliant work.
David Ganly’s Banquo is a gutsy, hearty soul who put me in mind slightly of Brian Blessed after a diet. It’s a perfect reading of the role but he absolutely comes into his own as the Ghost. His empty mouth’s voiceless lamentations and accusations are spine chilling. It’s only a tiny role, but Sophie Roberts’ Lady Macduff filled her five minutes with clarity, humour, and terror and was absolutely spot-on. Her murder made the audience gasp with horror – so that worked a treat.
There was quite a lot of doubling-up of roles, all of which worked fine, but special mention has to be made of Christopher Logan who took seven roles and gave each of them their own identity and dynamic. He was brilliant as the porter – that scene can sometimes be incredibly irksome – but he made it genuinely funny and nicely eccentric; not over-the-top, but perfectly convincing. Heroically noble as the Bleeding Captain; gormless as one of the murderers; compromised as the doctor; and even a suggestion of drag-queen as Hecate, he is a lynch-pin of the production and makes a superb contribution.
I noticed that the programme acknowledged the assistance – inter alia – of our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. I can guess what their contribution was; when Macduff finally appears with Macbeth’s head on a stick, it had all the hallmarks of The Bacchae’s head of Pentheus which his mother chomps away at in cannabilistic ecstasy. Suitably gruesome and realistic.
So, a few technical issues aside, on the whole this is a very good production and I would recommend it for some excellent performances and a clear reading of the plot. This was possibly the largest audience I’ve seen for a show at the Crucible, so hopefully it’s doing good business, which can only be great news for everyone.