June 22, 2008, by Peter Kirwan
Macbeth (WUDS) @ Warwick Arts Centre
Warwick University Drama Society’s new studio production of Macbeth was an ambitious endeavour, both technically and conceptually. The stage was dominated by a huge static-filled screen at the rear, while the space itself was filled with black flats and five hanging banners with the names of Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, Duncan and Malcolm running from ceiling to floor. Into this space, director Stu Denison created an individual vision of the play that dramatically refocussed attention, interpolated large portions of newly-written material and created back stories for even the most minor characters.
In this world, the Porter was having an affair with Lady Macbeth (he bringing her husband’s letter to her and laughing at his description of her as "faithful wife") while Ross and Lady Macduff were also taking advantage of a husband’s absence (lending a surprising amount of pathos to Ross’ repeated assurances). A French ‘Portier‘ accompanied the Porter and spent much of his time chatting to the audience, repeatedly trying to tell us a ‘story’ and ultimately giving up as he looked on the dead bodies. Even the Doctor took his moment centrally on the stage, moving about with hunched shoulders as he watched Macbeth’s troops preparing for war and quietly articulated his wish to be absent before joining the ranks.
Denison’s vision was centred on the witches, who were electro-convulsive therapy patients wearing white rags and moving in jerky movements. They almost never left the stage, instead moving around behind and through the on-stage action, controlling and manipulating characters. They often ‘possessed’ characters, inflicting them with pain, such as the Bloody Soldier who rested in their arms and screamed as they touched his wounds, before they took him off-stage and tortured him further. They similarly possessed an Old Lady before her conversation with Ross, tormented the Porter and Portier as they entered and left the stage, manipulated the Murderers into a bloody enthusiasm for their work, moved Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalked and so on, physically controlling almost every aspect of the on-stage activity.
It became increasingly apparent that this was their story. Additional dialogue between the three sisters explicated their characters, the three becoming an argumentative but mutually caring group who were creating chaos as some form of task. However, this became tiresome too quickly. The relentless focus on their prominence – even in the background, they repeatedly distracted from the action elsewhere – came at the expense of all the other characters, even Macbeth. It also frequently made no sense. In the England scene, reimagined as a club where the witches acted as lap-dancers, representing the lascivious court to which Malcolm had retreated, they even controlled Macduff in his moments of grief, forcing him down to the floor as he sobbed. The fact that characters weren’t even allowed to react to events without being controlled contributed to making the whole exercise feel somewhat pointless – if the witches control both cause and effect, why do we have any interest in the characters at all?
After the banquet scene, where the witches resurrected a zombified Banquo who bit Macbeth, they were visited by the white-suited Hecate, to whom they were in thrall. Hecate demanded to know "what the fuck is going on?", before telling them they had allowed the story to get off track and they needed to ‘fix’ it, as the audience were now lost (we weren’t). Their response was to call for speakers, trying to explicate the story through Angus and Lennox, and when that didn’t work they looked at the audience and suggested a 20 minute interval to give them time to get things in order. This section, delaying the interval for 10 minutes while Hecate, the Witches and the Portier stepped outside of the main action of the play, was abhorrent and patronising, a deeply uncomfortable moment that served seemingly no purpose apart from to attempt to be amusing.
The witches became more interesting in the second act, particularly as Hecate tortured them with ECT to provoke their visions for Macbeth (accompanied by the static-filled screen clearing up and showing related images). This was a nice moment, though suspiciously similar to Rupert Goold’s take in the Chichester production. The play finished with the witches too – upon Macbeth’s death, only his feet visible on the stage as Macduff battered his head with a fire extinguisher, they fell to the floor and wailed for several minutes, the lights gradually fading on them. The text from this point on was cut, represented only by Malcolm pulling down the banner with Macbeth’s name in a glee and the Portier trying once more to tell his story to the audience but being screamed at by the howling witches. Again, while an interesting focus for the end, it was unclear quite what we were watching – had the witches wanted to save Macbeth, despite their machinations elsewhere? Did this death mean something significant to them? What, exactly, was being mourned?
Nevertheless, the performances of the three witches (played expertly by Tash Hodgson, Fiona Mikel and Georgina Edewor-Thorley) were impressive, as was Cormac Brown’s Macbeth. Macbeth was the fourth character with an almost constant stage presence, though when not actively involved his presence was a static one, usually at the back of the stage watching the action. This felt odd, as Macbeth’s importance was enormously diminished by the production’s concentration on the witches – his personal activity felt insignificant. Brown gave a solid performance though, with some interesting moments. The dagger soliloquy was completely internalised, he making a movement as it clutching at something and raising it to his face, but then smiling at the audience and simply saying "No". This had the effect of reducing his hesitation before the murder itself, making his actions more direct. In early scenes he seemed quite passive, but as he rose to the monarchy he became a more forceful and strong tyrant, delivering his soliloquy on the danger of Banquo as an oration to the audience, standing on a chair.
The performances across the board were generally decent. Jay Saighal’s Macduff and Carl Cerny’s Lennox were the strongest verse-speakers, and Macduff had a particularly interesting moment trapped in a cage during the murder of his children, giving him a presence on stage which forced him to watch helplessly both as Ross and Lady Macduff kissed and then as his wife and son were murdered. James Marvin’s Banquo was less successful, his performance being entirely passive-aggressive, every line delivered with narrowed eyes and furrowed brow as if it concealed a threat or challenge. His pent-up anger finally got a release in his murder, which took place in a dazzling glare of light as he was mauled on the floor by the three killers. However, his zombie at the banquet was pleasingly disturbing and the moment where he lunged at Macbeth and savagely bit his neck was well-executed for horror-effect. His subsequent fondling of Lady Macbeth, even as she denounced her husband’s visions, was well done, and his mock-bow as Macbeth ordered him out of sight chilling.
Ben Canning, playing all the play’s children, was particularly good as the Young Macduff, running around with a toy plane and angrily shooting at Ross and his mother with a toy gun, before training it on the murderers in a bitter moment of comedy. Matt Goad’s Duncan went for the stereotypical doddery old man with shaking hands, but his feebleness and loneliness (his meal with the Macbeths saw just the three of them sitting together at a table, and he was left sad and alone as the couple plotted) was effective. David Ross gave a twisted performance as Malcolm, partly revelling in the delights of the English court and cackling as he tore down Macbeth’s banner. The banners were pulled down throughout the play as their owners were murdered (in Macduff’s case, his banner was pulled down by the murderers in order to throttle his wife) until only Malcolm’s remained.
Despite a great deal of good work by the cast, however, there was just too much going on. The core concept of the witches unbalanced everything else, and the efforts to cram in meaning to every tiny moment of action while also involving the witches meant the production lost focus and felt self-indulgent, as if they hadn’t been able to edit out ideas and had simply included everything. While the production was always interesting, it also always felt incoherent, and moment such as the pre-interval were messy and ill-advised. Some of the dialogue scenes, particularly those near the start, were by contrast static and dull, and therefore it felt like the basics of the play had been neglected in favour of the gimmicks.
Another audience member suggested afterwards that the Portier may have been the ‘idiot’ referred to by Macbeth in "a story told by an idiot", a line which was given particularly prominence in an effectively moving moment of quiet after Lady Macbeth’s death, which perhaps explained his prominence and would suggest that ultimately the whole production was little more than an irrelevant story. Whether or not this was the case, the production felt self-defeating, a reading which created business and backstories to explicate every piece of text but then seemed to deliberately sabotage the importance of its characters. While contributing lots of interesting moments and interpretations, as a unified piece this Macbeth was a sad disappointment.