Review: Macbeth ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: Macbeth

In Macbeth, the ruling metaphor is darkness. Macbeth's "black and deep desires", pricked into life by the prophecies of the witches, overthrow the deepest oaths of feudal manliness: loyalty to king and tribe and, perhaps the strongest tabu of all, to a guest under his own roof. As bloody ambition seizes Macbeth's mind, the clear boundaries of daylight vanish in the murky shadow. The solid earth is not what it seems: it "hath bubbles, even as the water has", and quakes with portent. Even the sun is hidden: "By th' clock 'tis day," says Ross. "And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp."

Macbeth (Dan Spielman) and the witch (Lizzie Schebesta) in Macbeth

This brooding sense of infecting darkness makes Macbeth the most claustrophobic of Shakespeare's plays. It's also one of the shortest, tracing a swift trajectory of temptation, corruption and fall. For all its feudal morality, it remains a compelling and intimate study of the paranoia of tyranny, which sews its downfall into its very fabric. Macbeth's initial murder of King Duncan to gain his crown ensures the crimes that follow, which in turn spark the rebellion that destroys him. But more germanely, as is compellingly clear in Peter Evans's lucid production for Bell Shakespeare, Macbeth's murder of Duncan is equally a violence to himself. "To know my deed 'twere best not know myself," he says, contemplating his bloody hands. It's that zombie conscience, as ruthlessly put down as the rebellious thanes but never quite dead, that drives him to madness.

In Evans's production, Macbeth becomes the hallucinations of a tormented mind. Anna Cordingley's strikingly elegant design summons mediaeval Scotland with a bare stage of rank grass. It's roofed by an angled mirror that reflects obscurely what happens beneath it, just as in the play the heavens reflect the dark acts of men. The night is made visible by a lot of haze and Damien Cooper's moody lighting, which shifts between brutal exposure and enscarfing shadow.

There is no attempt, except in a poetic sense, to make a realistic world: contemporary costumes cut against the Elizabethan language to place it in no-time, a troubled dream of the present. The stylised Meyerholdian movement of the performances is studded with images of stark realism: Banquo's half-naked corpse, for example, boltered with blood, mouth grotesquely gasping, as he sits at Macbeth's table. The effect is, startlingly, to foregound the language: Shakespeare isn't naturalised, but made strange, and so brought into thrilling focus.

Evans uses many of the same techniques that he brought to bear on his production of Julius Caesar, with similar ambition, but to very different effect. As with Julius Caesar, the text has been carefully edited, and similarly, as the tragedy closes in towards the end, the action fragments. All the tertiary characters have been cut, reducing the original character list of 43 down so it can be played, with some very clever doubling, by 11 actors. Some secondary scenes, such as Macbeth's dialogue with Banquo's murderers, are deleted altogether. Without removing anything important, or changing the play, the effect is to focus its essential action.

The performance language seen in Julius Caesar, which exploits a tradition of expressive physical movement and mise-en-scène derived from the modernist Russian director Meyerhold, is a core element. In its stylised movement and choreography it approaches the borders of dance, but here physical and visual expression is used to give the fullest possible resonance to the text. Kelly Ryall's through-composed soundscape - a rich and various mixture of electronic scratching, percussion, melancholy strings - is a vital sensuous cue, intensifying design and performance to a high pitch of theatricality.

I'm still not certain that this performance language is entirely articulated. Refined as it is here, there remains the odd moment when it merely seems a formal conceit; but my god, when language and performance unite, it's so exciting. It occurs to me, an an aside, that this practice might benefit from some study of contemporary dance: in its less successful moments, the physical movement looks back to the early 20th century, rather than taking the Meyerholdian influence and colliding it with the 21st century. I do know that no one else in our theatre is doing anything remotely similar.

What this production allows Evans to realise brilliantly is one of the most difficult aspects of the play, the supernatural. As an ambiguous reflection of Macbeth's desires and fears, the magic becomes unsettlingly real. I've already mentioned Banquo's ghost, which is a genuinely disturbing scene. The witches are reduced to one actor (Lizzie Schebesta), whose oracular voice is split eletronically into three. Schebesta's face is divided by a black stripe, indicating the double nature of the truths she tells Macbeth, and she reappears in several minor roles - as Fleance, a guest at the feast, various messengers, MacDuff's son - intensifying the sense that the entire play is Macbeth's hallucination.

Dan Spielman brings all his actorly intelligence to the role of Macbeth, making it a drama of self-knowledge at war with itself. In the beginning, Macbeth is, by his own lights, an honourable man: his violent nature, which is graphically reported in the opening scene, is firmly in the service of the king. In this world of raw power, it is not murder per se that is considered sinful, but disloyalty. When Macbeth's ambition is wakened by the witches on the heath, it is a recognition of what was already present within him - the wolf-like predator that later possesses him is physically signalled early in his performance. After hearing the prophecies, his first thought is to murder Duncan (Colin Moody). The idea horrifies him, but when, shortly afterwards, he hears Duncan name Malcolm (Robert Jago) as his heir, it is as if the murder is already decided: "let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see."

When he returns home and Lady Macbeth (a truly magnificent Kate Mulvany), pushes him to kill Duncan that very night, he discovers that his honourable self is not so easily quelled. He acts, but with horror, unable to face his own deeds and thoughts. This Macbeth is not a simple thug driven by greed for power, but a study in passionate and quicksilver contradiction: he cannot unknow himself. The loyal thane can't ignore the treacherous murderer, and the murderer can't forget the loyal thane. In the final act, this self-knowledge vacillates between torment and insensibility, denial and defiant acknowledgement; Macbeth becomes a personification of excoriating irony, sickened of himself and of life.

Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is certain in her self-knowledge, which makes her later madness the more grievous. Mulvany is absolutely riveting: this is an almost outrageous performance, which takes literal cues from the text and extends them into decisions like an attack of hiccups as Mulvany emerges from drinking with Duncan's guards, exhilarated by her impending crime. More interestingly, she adds up Lady Macbeth's reference to "giving suck" and the Macbeths' childlessness to make a motivating scar: this is a couple who have lost a child. She plays Lady Macbeth as a woman scoured of illusion, grasping for the sterile thrill of power as compensation: she believes in nothing except her own potential, sure of her will and capacity. When she breaks, she breaks completely, unlike Macbeth, who still has a soldierly self to hold together the shell of his soul.

Spielman and Mulvany are supported by a strong cast. Moody in the double role of Duncan and the Porter creates both a tough, unsentimental soldier-king, and, in one of the coup de theatre moments, his complementary antithesis, the drink-fugged, lewd servant. Jago is excellent as Malcolm, even in the scene where he deceives Macduff, which has always struck me a little too contrived to be entirely credible, and Gareth Reeves is a supple and very likeable Banquo, an image of Macbeth's better self. I wasn't sure of Ivan Donato's Macduff, which often seemed clumsy in performance, but the crucial scene where he is told of the murder of his family is deeply moving, and the final battle - a fight with broadswords which felt genuinely dangerous - is spectacular.

This is one of those productions where meaning expands the more you think about it, yet its keynote is simplicity and an unwavering fidelity to the play. All that is deadeningly familiar in the text is recreated as luminous and fresh. But perhaps what's most admirable is how all its elements - performance, design, mise-en-scène - create a work of deeply resonant clarity.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Evans. Designed by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Damien Cooper, composer Kelly Ryall. With Dan Spielman, Kate Mulvany, Colin Moody, Ivan Donato, Katie-Jean Harding, Gareth Reeves, Lizzie Schebesta, Hazem Shammas, Paul Reichstein, Robert Jago and Jason Chong. Bell Shakespeare at the Arts Centre Playhouse, until June 23.

Disclaimer: I have a work under commission with Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye.


Scott said...

Alison I can only agree with you totally. I had to see the production twice! It was riveting, cold and clear. I don't think I have ever heard the word pictures with such clarity - ever. BTW your review is a great read!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Scott! It was certainly worth seeing twice over.

Diana Simmonds said...

So glad to read your response - The Blessed Kate is an extraordinary package.

Alison Croggon said...

Indeed! Quite something, and then something else.