September 15, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Sheffield Theatres) @ The Crucible

Daniel Evans has been bringing tragedies annually to the Crucible in Sheffield, with a Hamlet in 2010 and last year’s Othello. That production was solid if flawed, traditionally staged but elevated by certain strong performances. It’s an assessment that might be directly transferred to Evans’s 2012 offering, Macbeth. Staged fully in the round and with a classical sensibility in its focus on storytelling, clear performances and a nod to the play’s more visceral possibilities, this was an efficient and entertaining Macbeth.

Geoffrey Streatfeild’s tall, grizzled Macbeth offered something of a study in compulsion. This relatively young soldier was in his element in the final scenes, skipping and jumping as he clashed swords with the painfully young son of Siward and the far more stolid Macduff (the always excellent John Dougall). But to finally return to this active state involved a long process of increased isolation and irrational behaviour, beginning immediately after the murder of Duncan as he answered his wife’s questions in some distraction before suddenly putting his bloodied hands on her face, focusing entirely on her for a brief moment before marching offstage. This oscillation between intensity and distraction continued throughout Streatfeild’s performance, most notably in the banquet scene. Disoriented by the appearances of the Ghost, he circumnavigated the table at which his lords sat, alternately staring at fixed points or jumping wildly around, until the second appearance of Banquo rising through the centre of the table found him scrambling backwards, cowering under the Ghost’s brandished sword.

What this Macbeth demanded was legacy. In meeting the apparitions, and being again forced to cower before an aggressive Banquo, he was confronted by the heads of children emerging from a pit, taunting him with the negative prophecies and then crowning each other in turn as Banquo’s progeny. It was, perhaps, in response to this that he accompanied Seyton himself to Lady Macduff’s home, taking up her babe in arms and refusing to pass it to the murderer. For his subsequent scenes he cradled the babe while he conducted his affairs, until finally the offstage screams of Lady Macbeth shattered his dreams, and he finally handed the child to Seyton for, presumably, a swift death. Only with the child finally gone was Macbeth finally free to attend to the war (while holding the baby, his armour hung loosely from one arm, he being unable to attach it) and regain something of his dynamism.

Macbeth’s own arc happened within a bare world, saturated with cliches of the Scottish supernatural – the stage was surrounded by circles of rocks and pools of water (in one of which the sleeping Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands), and the witches were played as elderly black-cloaked crones, dancing back and forth around a hole in the ground that served as their cauldron. Even the Hecate scene was included, which allowed for the perhaps unintentionally comic sense of the witches trying to quickly finish their work with Macbeth before she came back. The bumbling, oddly natural witches lacked threat despite the strobe lightning and ominous music, their rather physical presence seeming more ‘real’ than is perhaps usual.

This was one result of an approach that was far too literal throughout, particularly in its sound and visual effects. The witches produced artifacts that precisely matched the ingredients for their potion, and hoarse ravens and chiming bells were heard every time such things were referred to. The literalism was frustrating throughout, as within an otherwise bare soundtrack and stage environment, these signs became too obvious and looked comically incongruous. It also spoiled otherwise ambiguous moments – for the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth to hear the chimes, for example, grounded her spiritual experience very firmly in the mortal world, resisting the attempts to evoke the otherworldly elsewhere.

There was a clear distinction in creative input between the play’s two halves, with a more innovative series of decisions ushered in by a banquet scene that was all the more spectacular for following a rather calm opening hour. The table rose from the centre and provided a busy environment for Macbeth and the Ghost to chase each other round. More interesting was the set of mixed reactions from the assorted nobles: Andrew Jarvis’s prominent Old Man (here a priest) held up his cross to Macbeth while the otherwise-invisible Ghost leered on, while Ross and Lennox attempted to get on with their meals at Lady Macbeth’s instructions. The attempts to shock continued into a rather powerful Lady Macduff scene, with the son’s neck snapped by Ross Anderson’s terrifyingly ruthless Seyton, and then Lady Macduff’s (Sophie Roberts) head slammed repeatedly into a rock (with a sickening crunching sound). One was relieved that Macbeth refused to hand the child over to this severe villain. Anderson offered a menacing presence throughout, though his quick yielding of his sword and exit with Malcolm in the final movement were rather confusing.

Anderson was partnered throughout by Christopher Logan, taking on a bizarre number of roles including the Porter, Bloodied Captain, Doctor, Hecate(!) and the First Murderer (who appeared to be the same character as the Porter). As a double act with Anderson, the two offered loyal support to Macbeth and carried their own menace. Logan’s Porter strode about the rocks and played his lines straight, evoking the fear of the castle and almost pleading for forgiveness as he asked to be remembered. His Murderer appeared to be the same character, clapped in hand-irons for his earlier insolence, and he played an active role in wrestling Banquo to the ground.

The aspect that came across most strongly in the interpretation, however, was the sense of personal, psychological justification for actions. Claudie Blakley’s Lady Macbeth was less strong in the histrionics (despite a fine shriek during the sleepwalking scene, echoing Judi Dench’s famous unearthly howl in the role) than in the subtleties, from the pointed secret glare she directed at Macbeth while pretending to faint to the attempt to save face after Macbeth ordered her away from him, gathering herself before turning and leading the nobles away. Similarly, Dougall’s Macduff offered a gruff, stoical reading that emphasised the character’s rhetorical value while also drawing out the pain of his children’s loss. The production hit a duff note in his final action, however, as he brought out a bloodied head on a pole that evoked laughter rather than awe. Jarvis’s Duncan was a king of the old order, offering blessings with hands hovering over heads and falling to his knees promptly in celebration or fear of the outcomes of war. White-haired and white-robed, he was distinguished instantly from his surroundings and became the focus of all attention in his scenes, requiring Macbeth to physically break away from circles and illustrate physically to the audience the scale of his transgression.

The production still has time to settle in, and hopefully this will give some of the younger cast members the opportunity to get used to speaking in the space (the high pitch of several felt weak, especially given the extra work required by performing in the round) and for some of the more awkward moments of staging, including an odd decision to place the Waiting Woman centre-stage rather than Lady Macbeth during the sleepwalking scene, to be straightened out. However, the strengths of this production lay within its central performances and its commitment to a traditional, clear telling of the story, offering psychological justifications and some interesting innovations in staging, but trusting the text to carry the play.

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