May 30, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Macbett (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

I should preface this by saying that I’m not overly familiar with the work of Eugene Ionesco. I’ve studied a little of the ‘Theatre Of The Absurd’, but never actually seen a Ionesco production until last night. The opportunity, therefore, to see a response to Shakespeare written by one of the pioneers of a particularly fascinating and charged form of theatre, was one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. I dread to think, though, what the tourists thought…..

For although the basic outline of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ was used, this was a complete reappropriation of the play, Ionesco leaving just enough to make his departures the more apparent. This was a world of circus acts, mindless slaughter, headless corpses wandering the stage, public masturbation and stripteases. The phrase ‘black comedy’ is here too slight, as the play descended into sheer farce time and again, yet never lost the undercurrent of threat that often surfaced to engulf the play in true tragedy before the laughter could begin again.

Using the same company appearing in ‘Macbeth’ worked in this play’s favour, with some wonderful references- Mark Theodore’s Wounded Soldier appeared again, but here was transfixed with a spear and told by Duncan to stop whining, before putting a grenade in his own mouth and walking off to be blown to bits- Lady Duncan responding, “At least he was gracious”. Sarah Malin, in another excellent performance, filled the same function she had as the First Witch in ‘Macbeth’ by wandering the stage in several guises, though here she excelled as a painted clown, often in Chaplin costume, who alternated as a lemonade seller, butterfly catcher and rag-and-bone man, smiling eerily at the audience and undergoing two separate convoluted death scenes.

Several of the other play’s lead characters worked better here in smaller roles too. Jude Akuwudike and Sam Cox started the play wonderfully as the disgrunted Glamiss and Candor, clad in raincoats and plotting their rebellion to great comic effect. Patrick O’Kane, the title character in ‘Macbeth’, also excelled as the cowardly and ineffectual Duncan, cradling his tiny throne and emptying raw eggs into his mouth, before being painted as a clown and wrapped in cellophane for his murder. Brian Doherty also gave an hysterical performance as the Officer, beheaded mercilessly by Duncan but then resurfacing in the second act stitched back together and having to manually move his head to point the same way as his body, all the time performing with a tongue-in-cheek sincerity.

This wasn’t an actors’ play though, but a director’s. Silviu Purcarete, a Romanian auteur, brought a great sense of humour to the play, creating a surreal and fascinating world with particularly memorable visual images- Macbett drawing a circle of fire on the floor, the white sheet continually splattered with blood during the mass slaughter, the masked witches lit only by the flicker of lighters, the scrolling portrait of Banco’s ancestors that included Laurel, Hardy, Hitler and what appeared to be Sooty…..

Where the play suffered was in its lack of pace. Some substantial scenes are repeated in the text for ironic effect, but the slowness with which they were delivered meant that the effect of repetition was partly lost, as by the time they started the second run the first had been forgotten. It also meant that some of the humour lost its momentum, which was a real shame as a play that could have been laugh-out-loud hysterical instead just kept everyone quietly smiling. The lead trio of Macbett, Lady Duncan and Banco, who carried the bulk of the main plot between them, were clearly more comfortable with the mock-serious scenes than the farcicial ones, but all gave solid performances and soldiered on nonetheless.

Although the play picked up hugely in the second act, it was in the final couple of minutes when it truly captured the audience’s imagination. With the entire cast lying at his feet, Thane Bettany’s Macol (the Malcolm figure), with Lady Duncan kneeling next to him, began to deliver his promise of an even more hellish future during his reign, and the evils he would be committing. As he started to talk, a stage manager came on and beckoned the cast off, who got up and followed. As they left, the stage crew descended and began clearing away props, resetting the backdrop and sweeping up. Macol’s microphone was removed, much to his surprise, and he resorted to shouting through a megaphone. The houselights rose, Lady Duncan was called off by her real name, and eventually all that was left on stage was the frustrated Macol and a tiny ASM hoovering with a cute little hoover with eyes. Macol therefore ended up screaming his final lines: “I am your Emperor, your super-highness, super-sire, super-majesty” directly at the hoover, to an hysterical reception from the audience. Eventually David Troughton came back on stage and tapped his watch, to Macol’s embarrassment, and immediately the curtain call music struck up. It was a phenomenal, anti-theatrical end to the proceedings which fitted perfectly with what had come before, and was all the better for the unexpectedness.

I do feel the play could have been done better, and despite the good performances mentioned above, it was clear that the ensemble as a whole weren’t as comfortable with this play as they should have been. I would hazard the opinion that this kind of theatre demands an exceptional level of committment from its performers, and while Sarah Malin and a couple of others seemed very much in the spirit of it, others clearly weren’t. More than any other play I’ve seen recently, I simply didn’t know at the time what to make of it- I felt at once stimulated and disappointed. In retrospect I think it’s a good production, but I do feel that it suffered from a relatively short rehearsal period and an ensemble struggling to find its motivation.

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