One of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.
Among the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.
Undeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.
Eventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout, came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.
Judging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.
On the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!
A great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!
I remember having to write an essay on Shakespeare’s As You Like It at university. I enjoyed the play, and considered it from many angles, and then I thought I’d identified something no one else had seen before. Taking much of my idea from Touchstone’s lengthy scene with Jaques describing the degrees of a lie, and particularly his conclusion: “Your If is your only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, I constructed an (if I may say so) elegant, well-reasoned and convincing argument that the whole play is about the art of compromise. I read it enthusiastically to my tutor and eagerly awaited his response. He merely looked over his intimidating spectacles and murmured the two words: “possible interpretation”, at which point I instantly realised I’d run amok with my mad idea and had completely missed the point. For “possible interpretation” read “wrong”.
As Don says in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, “it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.” So, to Polly Findlay’s new production of Macbeth for the RSC. If I’d taken time to read the programme before it started (yes, my bad, I know), I would have realised that the whole production centres on Macbeth’s relationship with time. And there’s little doubt in my mind that time is indeed one of the themes of the play. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”; “the seeds of time”; “untimely ripp’d” and so on; they’re all there. However, I’ve always felt that the ultimate theme in Macbeth is “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Then you have those important themes of power; cruelty; tyranny versus nobility; not to mention the supernatural element. Macbeth’s also one of the finest examples of dramatic irony, which applies to all true tragedies, where the hero doesn’t know his character failings nor his outcome but the audience does. And then, of course, there’s the hope for the future. Scotland’s afraid to know itself until the noble Malcolm becomes King. So many options for so much dramatic indulgence.
Now, I love challenging theatre. And I’m all for messing about with Shakespeare (to an extent) – he’s big and strong enough to take care of himself, after all. But if you choose to approach a play from a bold, original and unpredictable angle, there has to be a purpose to it. It should open up the audience’s understanding of the play. It must illuminate where before there was darkness. It has to make you understand things you never fathomed before. But this production does the complete opposite. By linking the play inexorably to theme of time, it imprisons it rather than releases it. Despite knowing the play fairly well, I found the narrative surprisingly confusing and difficult to follow, which doesn’t make for a rewarding night at the theatre. In an attempt to cast new light on one of the most magnificent plays in the English language, the creative team have subjugated it under this all-embracing yoke of time, to the near-eradication of all its other subtleties and glories.
For example: out go the three witches, to be replaced by three cute little girls in pink jimjams each cuddling a dolly. Congratulations to whichever three child actors were playing the parts last Saturday evening because they carried it off superbly. But ghoulish hags they aren’t, which renders many of Banquo’s and Macbeth’s comments about them meaningless. My guess is that they were meant to be eerie, like the children in Poltergeist or The Omen, or some such horror movie. Way off the mark, I’m afraid.
Out, too, goes the comedy drunken porter, and in comes a lugubrious presence who sits at the side of the stage for the whole performance and crosses off random chalk tallies on the wall; if there was a symbolic reason for this, I’d love someone to explain it. He has his uses; when Lady Macbeth didn’t properly turn off the tap on the watercooler, he was there with a deft knob turn. More significantly, and elevated to a level of importance way beyond Shakespeare’s original, he sets off an LED clock on the back wall of the stage, ticking down the minutes and seconds from 2 hours to zero, which will be the point at which Macbeth dies. He becomes the Zeitmeister. Sadly, the ticking clock was much more mesmeric than the nonsensical things that were happening on stage; I almost skipped the interval as I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Here’s a knocking indeed” says the Porter. And he’s right. I’ve never heard such loud knocking – way too loud to be realistic, so I presume they’re going for a symbolic effect. But for me it’s the perfect example of how this production sacrifices subtlety for an attempt at a wow factor.
Fly Davis’ setting incorporates a second small stage high above the first and hidden behind a screen, which can only be seen when it’s lit from within. This provides a useful additional acting space and works very well. What works less well is the constant projection of random phrases from the text at the top of the stage – I’m never a fan of these Brechtian distancing devices, and, believe me, they are very random. To tie in with the ever-present time theme, the word later often appears over the hidden stage. No kidding. Sometimes it says now but mainly it says later. The observant theatregoer already knew they weren’t seeing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal so they guessed it was taking place in chronological order. Everything’s always later, dang my breeches. You only have to look at the ticking clock staring you in the face – of course it’s later, what else could it be? However, the clock is ticking down in real time, but the play doesn’t proceed in real time; so there are now two timescales, and, presumably, two different types of later. Does that help? No. It’s confusing rather than illuminating. And talking of playing with time, the last fifteen seconds of the production completely rewrite both the original and the nature of all Shakespearean tragedy, with the implication that the whole thing is going to start again with another 2 hour countdown. NO! It isn’t! They’re making up their own story, gentle reader. This shouldn’t be called Macbeth, it should be renamed Macbeth’s Time Machine, based on an idea by Shakespeare.
When you pretty much hate everything the production is trying to do, it’s very difficult to see through that and pick out the good aspects. But I’ll try. The set is functional and clear. There’s one exceptionally good performance – more of which shortly. The technical tricks with the clock were accurate and memorable. The lighting is stark but effective. The costumes were of course excellent – well some of them were a little unusual but when have you ever seen the RSC perform with poor quality or inappropriate costumes?
With a starry cast headed by Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack I had high expectations for a dynamic duo on stage. But I sensed there was very little magic between them. Theirs felt more like a business arrangement than a marriage. To appreciate the pressure on Macbeth and the influence of Lady Macbeth, you have to believe that if he doesn’t screw his courage to the sticking place he’ll have one helluva domestic price to pay. But in this production, that sense of threat is missing. This Macbeth could easily have gone talk to the hand and said whatever as she was nagging on. Mr Eccleston spends the evening being bluff and dour, with not a lot of light and shade to his delivery. Ms Cusack sometimes looks like she’s on a sugar hyper, so jumpy and over-animated is her behaviour. Only in the dining scene, where Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo, did Ms Cusack seem at ease with the role, with her embarrassed, hurried excuses to their guests. Bizarrely, throughout the whole play, I also found that many of their speech inflections seemed, well, just wrong; stressing the wrong word in a sentence, or the wrong syllable in a word. Much of it was very alien and uncomfortable to the ear.
Most of the other roles lacked a sense of individuality, but to be fair they weren’t helped by the over-stylistic presentation. David Acton’s Duncan stood out as a thoughtful, credible portrayal of a noble king, so it was annoying that Macbeth killed him so early. Michael Hodgson’s Porter became something of an audience favourite with his deliberately stilted, mocking, laconic characterisation. It’s not often that I find the Porter’s crude speech funny; and sadly, this was no exception. I did, however, have to resist the temptation to let out at derisory laugh when he got his carpet sweeper out. OK, in the castle, I expect the Porter would have to do a bit of cleaning now and then. But on the battlefield? I’ve never heard of the detritus of war being cleared up with a Ewbank, particularly as slowly as he was doing it. Either I’m too stupid to get it, or it was too stupid to care about. Your choice.
Thank heavens for Edward Bennett as Macduff, who exuded the perfect degree of upright respectability, spoke with utmost clarity, and, in the words of Ronan Keating, said it best when he said nothing at all when told of the murders of the rest of his family. That stunned silence, that emptiness behind the eyes, that controlled need for repeated confirmation of what had happened, all conveyed more emotion, sorrow and quiet fury than the rest of the show put together. Kudos to him and Mr Eccleston for timing their fight so that the lethal blow was struck at the just the right moment – it would have been agony to be a second out. Although Mr Eccleston was hanging around just waiting to be sliced for a little longer than was believable; I guess that’s the price you pay when you sacrifice the truth for the effect.
It wasn’t long into the show before Mrs Chrisparkle fell asleep. She wasn’t tired; she was a combination of bored, confused and irritated. I knew better than to wake her up. The temptation to leave at the interval was strong; but I have to say, everyone came back for the second half which really surprised me; and it received a very warm reception from the audience at curtain call, so I’m fully prepared to accept I’m out of kilter on this one. But I think this is one of the most misguided productions I’ve ever seen, choked by gimmickry. As Macbeth himself says, Confusion hath made its Masterpiece. He’s right there.
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.