May 2, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ Shakespeare’s Globe

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Lucy Bailey’s recent outings at Shakespeare’s Globe have been some of the biggest highlights of the theatre’s annual season. Last year’s Timon of Athens, in particular, made amazing, innovatory use of the space to create a theatrical experience that was total and participatory, creating something theatrically effective over any sense of historical authenticity. This exploration of the Globe’s boundaries continued with Macbeth. A black canopy over half of the pit offered groundlings the chance to watch the action with their heads poking up through holes, rooting them to a spot and bringing them, quite literally, into the world of the play; for this black canopy was the pit of hell, seething and billowing on the edge of the stage.

Audience members shrieked as actors sprinted about under the canopy, brushing against legs and, in one case, apparently picking someone’s pocket. The feeling of being rooted to the spot further induced panic as Frank Scantori’s bloated, disgusting Porter threatened to throw his bucket of piss over our heads. Finally, and most dramatically, naked male bodies were thrust up through gaps in the canopy, bloodied and screaming in torment. This black sea of the underworld was the place were souls would suffer for eternity, and the scarily impressive make-up of gouges and wounds made this a truly effective experience for those of us standing among them.

The custodians of this world were the three Sisters, here comically dressed in the tattered uniforms of Globe stewards, metatheatrically linking the physical environment of our world with the metaphorical aesthetic of the play. Haggard and capped, and nominally led by the diminutive Karen Anderson, the Three acted to move tortured souls between the two worlds, whether bundling bodies through trapdoors or holding up the screaming spirits that appeared to Macbeth. Constantly in motion, and repeatedly appearing throughout the play, including as Macbeth’s soldiers in the final act, they closed in on Macbeth throughout, governing the play’s key actions and awaiting their prey.

The staging gimmick, unfortunately, was so dominant that it rather unbalanced the rest of the play, as well as the audience’s attention. School groups were largely more interested in creating funny shapes under the canopy, and it induced something of an hysterical state in a lot of people that detracted attention from the play itself. This was made even more difficult by an entirely unnecessary pair of circular motorised rails hanging from the stage roof, from which were hung a black curtain and a series of burning cauldrons. The noise of this rail, coupled with the usual sound problems of the Globe (clearly, helicoptors are making up for lost time after the impact of the volcanic ash cloud) and the state of an audience distracted by the innovative staging, meant that for long parts of the action I could barely make out the words actors were saying – and I was standing at the very front of the pit.

When the play managed to break through, it was largely very decent, although individual performances were of mixed quality. Happily, both Elliot Cowan and Laura Rogers in the leads were extremely strong. Cowan’s Macbeth was a man of powerful build and ambition, with a confident swagger that belied fears of the prophecies. When he showed moments of weakness, then, they carried all the more impact: asked by Lady Macbeth for the daggers, he kicked them back with his heel, unable to bring himself to even look at them. His physical ability manifested itself sexually (to the whooping delight of the school groups) in his return to Lady Macbeth. He approached her from behind a transparent black curtain as she mused, reaching out and enveloping her in the curtain, kissing her through it in a fantastic image that saw the man literally envelop the woman in darkness, violence and lust all in a freeze-framed kiss. As they stripped off and began (almost) copulating on the floor, one saw a healthy and driven relationship that empowered both of them, the sex in itself driving their ambition. As Macbeth progressed to power, though, this sexual aggression took on a more disturbing form, including a near-rape of her even as he excluded her from his plans to murder Banquo and Macduff. Finally alone and rearmed in his final scenes, he exuded a confidence in his own strength that is rarely seen in productions more concerned with showing his mental degradation; beckoning to Young Siward, he despatched his young foe with a casual disregard.

Rogers, meanwhile, was a fascinatingly conflicted Lady Macbeth. This was the most scared Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen, with her nervousness and awkwardness only absent when in sexual contact with her husband. Where she would normally be dominant in the immediate aftermath of the murder, here she was as terrified of the bloody daggers as Macbeth, eventually steeling herself to take them back and walking fitfully towards Duncan’s chamber. Her increasing terror of Macbeth saw this fragile woman slowly breaking apart even as he rebuffed her, and the events of the banquet scene left her in a shaking mess. The sleepwalking scene realised this breakdown, she stumbling around the stage with a wax candle and scrubbing at the floor in a panic before giving a horrific scream. It was an interestingly human take on Lady M., showing a woman whose ambition far exceeded her reach and paid the price for pushing herself too far.

Keith Dunphy was a remarkably weak Macduff, apparently bored in the role and keen to get his scenes over with as soon as possible. His voice was reedy throughout, and he played Macduff as keenly naive in the England scene, beaming in pleasure over Malcolm’s trick. This was coupled with one of the poorest stage fights I’ve ever seen in his final tussle with Macbeth, a horribly anticlimactic end to the main action of the play. While much of this was related to Dunphy’s performance, it also felt like a weakness I’ve complained about before of Rupert Goold’s Shakespeare productions: that beneath the gimmicky, production design and high concept, Bailey struggles to direct simple dialogue scenes to match the flair elsewhere. The strengths of this production were visual and conceptual, but functional dialogue was treated as exactly that, and were simply boring to watch or listen to. Thankfully, Julius D’Silva is an excellent verse speaker, and his Ross brought interest and vocal variety to his scenes with the Old Man and the end of the England scene.

The Thane of Cawdor (Ken Shorter) was bound to a pillar as the bloodied soldier (one of the tortured souls of the opening scene) delivered his description of the battle, and he was messily dismembered in view of the audience. The actual death was juxtaposed with the image of Duncan leading a medieval religious ritual, his piety deliberately contrasted with the brutal slaughter of his enemies. James Clyde was a well-spoken and strong leader of soldiers, watching in dignified pleasure as the rest of the Thanes picked up Macbeth for a victory tour about the stage. This male-oriented world was one of masculine embracese and exchanges of swords, and one of the production’s greatest strengths was in evoking a world of ritual and tradition. As Macbeth delivered his "If twere done" soliloquy, the Thanes were seated around the back of the stage engaged in a choreographed celebratory drinking ritual, raising their glasses and singing (led by Fleance) to the battle and each other. Evoking something of Beowulf, this element of ritual feasting led neatly up to the pivotal banquet scene in which Banquo’s bloody ghost crawled out of a platter of food laid on the stage, the meats being shoved aside as a hand rose to clutch at Macbeth.

Hideous bagpipes scored the action, often from the yard, positioning the devil’s pipes around the boundaries of the hell-scape from which the witches arose. The sounds of evil were most pivotal during the near-comic horror of the apparitions scene, which intelligently utilised the theoretical spaces established earlier. Macbeth was lowered into a trapdoor, basking in the heats of hell as if in a hot tub. The apparitions were then paraded in front of him, miming their words while the witches spoke the speeches. Macduff delivered his own prophecy as a ventriloquist’s dummy; a voodoo baby promised Macbeth that no-one born of woman would hurt him; while an idiot-Malcolm, escorted by the Porter, babbled the Birnam Wood prophecy while shaking a rattle. Scantori’s Porter, a looming Igor-like presence in Macbeth’s court, became the Witch’s pet in this scene, collared and leering as he escorted their helpers in. Finally, Fleance appeared with a crown on his head while crowns were passed among the Globe audience and hung on chains hanging from the roof, culminating in a furious melee of activity which suddenly vanished to leave Macbeth alone onstage. In moments such as these, Bailey’s conceptual approach was satisfactorily realised.

The bloody violence that pervaded the production was ever-present on stage, especially in the brutal butchery of Macduff’s family, most horrifically in the case of the daughter, who ran off stage and was brought back on hanging limply from the soldier’s arms. The casual dumping of bodies into trapdoors, overseen by Clyde’s Seyton, was just as horrible. Christian Bradley’s strong, confident Banquo was slashed and torn, spurts of blood gushing over the audience from the stage daggers, even as he helped Fleance flee up a ladder; while the bloodied bodies of both Duncan and Lady Macbeth were displayed to the world. Lady Macbeth herself was passed out into the pit of hell, disappearing from view under the black billows, while Macbeth was forced into the same by Macduff. As Macduff announced Macbeth’s death, his naked and bloodied body emerged from the pit, howling in torment as the witches cackled over their latest victim.

Conceptually, then, this was a strong production, let down in execution by a couple of weak performances and a lack of attention to the less gimmicky moments. While I approve heartily of the Globe’s innovation in staging (it’s a living theatre, not a museum), I think Bailey’s production is a warning over how disruptive the trickery can become: it’s a simple space, and attention needs to be paid to how redesigning it affects the acoustics and dynamics. Nonetheless, a decent start to the new season.

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