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Review: Macbeth

Drama Barn excel in their ultra-cool performance of Macbeth. Joseph D'angelo reviews.

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[caption id="attachment_120416" align="alignleft" width="640"]Image: Dramasoc
Image: Dramasoc

Venue: Drama Barn

Student directors putting on Shakespeare, especially the better known plays, are in a precarious position. Shakespeare carries a heavy weight in theatre, and it was an enormous relief to see Wilem Powell totally ignore the sanctity associated with a play as well known, and well-loved as Macbeth. Instead, what we were given was Macbeth according to Wilem, and the result was astounding, disturbing and wholly satisfying. Be prepared people, Shakespeare this sure 'aint.

What Macbeth most closely resembles instead, is a frantic, hugely stripped down adaptation of the Scottish play; transposing the action, with sinister success, to a modern police state, where every movement is monitored over CCTV and danger lurks behind every grim, grey corner. The set comes across as something of a mix between a prison and an abattoir, with clear plastic strip curtains serving as a beautifully horrid focal point. Coming it at about 2 hours, the play feels rapid and frantic; and the production oozes cool - blood and violence abound (Stanley knives have never been used to such satisfying and gruesome effect), music is used to mostly satisfying effect and ultimately, the cast all give perfectly pitched performances, carrying the show through with unbridled energy and slickness.

The show is not faultless however, and initially I left the first half feeling that the production's insistence on being 'cool,' meant that the narrative suffered. The first few acts became particularly muddled as I searched my head for what was happening in the play at this time. It was confusing and poorly paced, but I came to realise by the end of the show that this mattered very little, because this was not the Macbeth we know. The play starts with the very un-Shakespearian line, 'Fucking hell,' which works perfectly to instantly dislocate the play from its source. What follows is a bloody, modern take on the Macbeth story, which never has any pretence as to what it is. It is happy to stray from the text, and it's a wonderful thing too.

Wilem's production is vision focused and performance driven, and Tim Kelly's Macbeth and Saffia Sage's Lady Macbeth are incredible. Kelly plays Macbeth with utter transparency, an angry adolescent constantly striving for acceptance from the maternal yet cold Lady Macbeth. The two work very well together, and an early embrace between the two encapsulates the desperate wanting of Macbeth and underlying maternal influence of his wife. A mention must go too to Jamie Bowman and James Esler, whose partnership as Macduff and Malcolm culminates in a heart wrenching scene, played with sincerity, naturalism and honesty. I could spend the entire review praising the individual performances of this show: Venetia Cook's Porter treads the line between comedy and treachery beautifully, Georgina Wilmer gives a knockout Lady Macduff, Golfgo Migos horrifies as the Murderer ... but I digress.

What this production needs to be praised for is its ballsiness. Everybody involved in Macbeth is entirely on board with what it's trying to do, which is to make Shakespeare fresh; which is achieved in abundance. If you'd never seen or read Macbeth and then saw this production, you'd arguably be none the wiser as to what the play is. But that doesn't matter. This is not Shakespeare's Macbeth; this is at its worst a sometimes contrived production focusing on cool, but at its best it is something new and something very different, trimming the fat and giving us a show that is slick, polished and wonderfully entertaining.

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3 Comment

Stan. Braminski Posted on Wednesday 22 May 2019

Like you say there's nothing wrong with departure from source material, but it's not always "a wonderful thing to do". The very essence of Macbeth, corruption, was excised by the play's immediate rendering of Macbeth and Banquo. That's not necessarily bad, but where did they take it? Macbeth still went hypochondriac in 'if it is to be done, tis better it were done quickly', and Lady Macbeth power mad in 'unsex me' as if it were still a corruption play, regardless of the fact there were no dark places left to tread into. Then there was the clear atheistical context which fatally undermined the play's context of Jacobean superstition (again: not inherently bad, but why did they keep lines invoking demons and angels in?). It made no sense: that can't be overcome with shock value or novelty. You say the first half was confusing; the second, when Macbeth's castle was being stormed by a force of 10,000, and everyone accordingly charged around with ... box cutters, I think encapsulated how the 'overreaching ambition' of this play, however alluring a premise, suffocated artistic merit.


Ralph Poole Posted on Wednesday 22 May 2019

I think the intention of Banquo and Macbeth's twisted entrance was to subvert an audience's expectation of the characters as those sort of war heroes - I would refute that in fact, the corruption in the play was highlighted by beginning with a heightened sense of corruption and injustice and it therefore questioned audience expectations.

In regards to your point that some lines do not make sense due to a modern context; I think you are being incredibly ignorant of modern performance style, in which much of Shakespeare's works are reworked and modernised but the text is not thrown aside. Besides, "angels and demons" still have a place in the modern day, they still exist as a concept and the archaic language in fact suggests a sense of universality I'd say, and makes a political statement that in four hundred years, nothing has changed.

Shakespeare must be taken with tongue and cheek now days, and as D'angelo points out, this is not about the text, but about the artistic vision.


Stan. Braminski Posted on Wednesday 22 May 2019

Yikes, dropped the ball on this one (2 weeks later). I doubt you'll get this, but I have a response so:
Although it is an interesting point the way the girls played the witches, terrified beyond measure and dressed as political prisoners, very forcefully signified Macbeth and Banquo weren't heroes at all. The Guantanamo Bay reference which was sort of the premise of the whole interpretation, I think hammers that home most of all: in no way to a contemporary UK audience are these sorts of people heroes, or sympathizable. So I think the fact it was played like a corruption play is still a problem.
In relevance to the "angels and demons" language, my objection was not that the play was being reworked but how it was being reworked. Sure an audience has a concept of angels and demons, but it certainly isn't the same angels and demons for a Jacobean audience. In Jacobean times demons could smash your windows at night and the prayer could change the weather. This is how the play is written. In a play like 'Romeo & Juliet' when the supernatural's hinted at a modernizing production doesn't need tread carefully; in a play like Macbeth when the supernatural starts to change reality it does. Unless, of course, the director wants to throw the Jacobean world out of the window and make her own, which is fine; but as I've noted in my last comment this requires script doctoring, or else the director's world clashes with the original world of the playwright - this was the problem with this production.
I believe in modernization, but the text needs to be taken somewhere. Somewhere good that works. Modernization per se doesn't deserve praise.

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