November 19, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Song of the Goat Theatre/ Teatr Piesn Kozla) @ The Barbican Pit

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Last night’s production was informed, for this reviewer, by mimetic associations and intertextuality that bordered, at times, on déjà vu. It was the second Polish take on Macbeth I’ve seen in the last couple of years. It was also the second Macbeth I’ve seen this year at the Barbican, both times sitting centrally in the front row of one of their black box spaces. The likeness was only bolstered by the superficial similarity to Cheek by Jowl’s production: isolated, stark spotlights; a set of movable boxes; a deconstructed text; actors primarily delivering text to the audience instead of each other; a highly symbolic physical style. And finally, of course, I’d seen this ensemble before, back when Macbeth was just a work-in-progress during the RSC’s Complete Works Festival.

The déjà vu, however, manifested as a sensation of familiarity rather than repetition. The elements of recognition were in some ways organic to the production, built around a tightly-knit ensemble who built music and movement as a group. In an early sequence, the seven cast members knelt in a semicircle, with Anu Salonen’s Witch in the centre, and looking at each other they began singing the Sisters’ lines, their voices rising in exquisite harmony as they chanted. Their hands gestured to one another in actions of joining and giving, the group self-conducting. It was a strategy – honest and powerful – that perfectly encapsulated the ensemble ethos which made this Macbeth so much warmer and more emotionally impacting than Cheek by Jowl’s similarly impressive but cold interpretation. Although the individual performances were subsumed to the group enterprise more completely than in other so-called ensemble productions, these were still deeply human performances, exemplified in Gabriel Gawin’s Macbeth, a bewildered and tormented hero who gazed pleadingly into the audience, looking for salvation from the chaotic mess he found himself in. As he spun around blindfolded, listening to the visions of the witches, one saw a man battling to maintain an identity in the face of greater forces.

The music was key, and unfortunately there’s no way to adequately describe it in words. Among Song of the Goat’s research interests are chanting (the company are based in a 14th century monastery in Wroclaw) and the music of lost/vanishing cultures. Rafal Habel’s underscore on the kayagum (a Korean string instrument, and I’m relying entirely on the programme for the details) provided a base melody throughout, while the multilayered vocal work of the cast drew from Corsican traditions. The effect was a sonic collision of Eastern spiritualism with a deeply religious European tradition. Salonen’s breathtaking, wordless vocal soarings were tinged with a hint of desperation, a music from another plane aching to be understood, which itself rendered the Witch strangely compelling. A perennial outsider, she at one point ran rings around the men in the company as Macbeth soliloquised, leaving them brandishing swords at empty space. Existing in the liminal spaces of the theatre, she gradually became more integrated, whether cradling Lady Macbeth’s head or escorting the dead to a candlelit series of platforms where they became a living monument.

The music impacted significantly on the spoken style, with speeches often delivered in a sing-song style – Ian Morgan’s Bloody Messenger, for example, latched onto specific kayagum notes which he matched for pitch and tone as he delivered his report of the battle from a kneeling position, where his hands offered a similarly abstracted expression. The least effective moments of the production, in fact, were those in which dialogue was delivered in a more or less naturalistic characterisation – Anna Zubrzycki, for instance, sometimes veered too far towards playing Lady Macbeth rather than presenting her, at seeming odds with the style of the piece; though, I should hasten to add, this was only very occasional.

Complementing the music was a tightly-choreographed series of complex movement sequences. It’s rare to see theatre so technically accomplished from both vocal and physical perspectives, and the integration of the two was spectacular, creating an organic and visually musical whole. Ewan Downie’s kinetic Malcolm was a case in point, delivering his lines in a blur of movement that obscured his face, but invested his words with an urgency that in turn drew attention to the emotional nature of his scenes. Rarely has Malcolm come across as such a desperate, conflicted man, despite his part being drastically cut.

The physical work was based around the use of sticks, exploring the beauty and violence of Eastern martial arts. As Lady Macbeth read her husband’s letter, she moved between the ensemble as they swiped and stabbed, while the Witch twirled two sticks in a corner, almost seeming to lead the men. The company’s adeptness both with handling and passing the weapons allowed them to create an elaborate ballet of props, passing like batons at key moments. The sleepwalking scene was visualised in Lady Macbeth’s attempt to gather the swords of her encroaching enemies, moving up to them as they brandished the sticks and gently prising them from their fingers; even as a terrified Macbeth took them back off her and threw them back to their owners. Eventually she collected the full set. Macbeth’s subsequent defiance of prophecy followed directly on: Lady Macbeth kneeled, and as Macbeth railed at Fate, he violently drew one stick at a time from her, with she wincing as if slashed. As he held the full bunch of sticks, the Witch led Lady Macbeth to a raised platform, where Banquo and Duncan already waited; and, as she announced the Queen’s death, Macbeth let the sticks fall to the ground.

This kind of representative physicality informed the entire production, allowing them to compress the text into 70 minutes. The use of tableau images was particularly important surrounding the death of Duncan. First the Macbeths, having made their plans, approached a pool of light, facing away from the audience as they were lit in silhouette by Duncan’s approach. Faroque Khan’s dynamic Duncan, introduced in mock fight with his attendants, was led onto a raised platform by Lady Macbeth and the Witch, and they together charmed him asleep in an iconic series of slow-motion movements, he falling backwards into the Witch’s lap. At the same time, Macbeth could be seen half-veiled at the back of the stage, holding out a hand in a visual foreshadowing of the dagger speech. One of the most interesting textual aspects of the production was that consequence often preceded action – so, Malcolm’s decision to flee to England preceded the announcement of the murder (staged powerfully, with Duncan moving slowly across the back of the stage as the cast responded histrionically), and the news of the murder of the Macduffs was followed by  the appearance of Lady Macduff criticising her husband’s flight, played beautifully in conflict with Morgan’s sobbing penance.

The production was best thought of in terms of its sequences, such as these. Banquo’s death was especially powerful: Kacper Kuszewski’s Banquo and a Murderer, shifting their weight continually and running backwards in long, loping arcs, circled one another, and the Murderer repeatedly slashed out with a thin whip-like stick. Banquo grew increasingly punch-drunk, eventually struggling to get back up of the floor after falling, and ultimately collapsing prostrate. The death of Macbeth was played with deliberate echo: Macduff crossed the stage and slashed Macbeth on “untimely ripped”, and Macbeth convulsed on the floor, before struggling to his feet and the action being repeated twice more.

The “full of scorpions” scene was accompanied by three of the cast climbing the back wall of the theatre using rings, splaying themselves across the scenery like flies on a wall; yet spectacular images such as this were always accompanied by other members of the ensemble filling out the composition with more subtle actions in another part of the stage. Heightened by Robert Balinski’s emotive lighting palette, the company created rich visual compositions with detail that would doubtless repay repeated viewings. The point perhaps, however, was that one had no time to identity all the elements of the piece: it was the overall effect, of a beautiful and mystical story, that was important.

The production closed on a solemn note. Lady Macbeth cradled her dead husband, screaming and wailing, while Macduff knelt at the far end of the stage, sobbing at the enormity of his actions. A full blackout fell, leaving only a single candle burning. Macduff picked up the candle, his disembodied head and hand moving across the stage, and took it to the Macbeths, illuminating Macbeth’s face in flickering light. He then blew out the candle, plunging the world of the play into darkness. As the blackout lingered, the kayagum continued to play, its music becoming ever slower as the production receded into infinite black of death. Applause seemed trite after such a complete ending; it’s a production that I feel hugely privileged to have seen, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

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