February 22, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Filter) @ Liverpool Everyman

Filter is one of my favourite theatre companies, whether for its wonderfully anarchic Shakespeare productions or for its thought-provoking new writing, so it is with no small regret that I have to confess to disappointment at Macbeth. The raw materials of Filter’s work – an exposed production of sound, musicians at the heart of action, fragmented snapshots of a text and playful riffs on familiar scenes – were all present and correct, and yet here the creativity felt empty, out of joint and, most crucially, simply not fun.

The parts were much greater than the whole, and there was much to praise in the production’s concept. The weyard sisters were created from a cacophony of voices and (mostly electronic) music generated by the ensemble from two overflowing tables of computers and instruments in the centre of the Everyman’s thrust stage. Around this mess of wires and wails the production took shape, always keeping the memory of the witches at its centre. From the first playful joke, as one musician brought in a tray of coffees and divvied them up with a ‘double? Double?’ to his fellows, the witches offered a nod and a wink to the idea of the text while driving that text forward through a deafening soundscape.

The spatial arrangement of the stage allowed for some wonderful images. As Ferdy Roberts’s Macbeth returned home, he walked and then sprinted around the edges of the stage, building up speed while Poppy Miller’s Lady Macbeth received a garbled radio message of his letter to her. Actors emerged from the pool of musicians to join the scene instantly, most powerfully as Geoffrey Lumb’s Macduff stood to confront Macbeth for the finale, or as the seated Paul Woodson was gestured to by Macbeth as he mentioned the fled Malcolm. The exposure of the mechanics of the stage rendered this the performance of an idea of a text, rather than a representation of that text, in a way that reminded me of productions by Cheek by Jowl, Teatr Piesn Kozla, Warwick University Drama Society and any number of others. Increasingly, Macbeth seems to be a play that one talks about, rather than actually does.

At its most effective, this made for some extraordinary moments of metatheatrical resonance. As the Porter, Woodson sauntered in from behind the theatre’s loading door, thanking an unseen stagehand and carrying a York Notes-style guide to Macbeth, from which he explained the themes of the play to an aghast Macbeth, who clawed at the book and began reading his fate from it. Setting up the idea of Macbeth – and life itself – as a poor player, Macbeth reacted with anguish to the book informing him that his wife would become mad in Act 4. Yet this rich device was played with threat rather than with playfulness and, disappointingly, was never revisited, although the book itself remained onstage in a pool of blood.

Later, the England scene was interwoven with the visitation of Lady Macduff’s house, intercutting Macduff’s flight with its effects, and allowing Alison Reid – doubling as Lady Macduff and Ross – to perform and report her flight alternately. With her youngest child represented by an egg-shaped speaker that emitted gurgling cries, the death itself was conveyed simply, but somewhat anticlimactically, by Macbeth simply turning it off. Another effective visual image was the sight of Lady Macbeth scrawling arrows and targets directly onto the torso of Woodson’s Duncan with a red marker pen. This extremely effective image was revisited in a wonderful moment of doubling later as Macbeth, talking to the Doctor and Gentleman who had been attending his wife, suddenly recognised the actors as the ghosts of Duncan and Banquo (Victoria Moseley). In this moment of split identity, the exposed process and aesthetic of Filter’s work showed its merits.

Yet while such scenes showed the inventiveness and symbolic clarity that always characterises Filter’s work, the moments here felt isolated, more akin to an amateur production with a wealth of ideas but no overall mission. The banquet scene involved the ensemble donning celebrity masks and engaging in a game of Blind Man’s Buff. Roberts’s shtick as he blindly pretended to grope at audience members was extraordinarily unpleasant, carrying none of the fun or frisson of Filter’s usual manipulation of the audience, and the party bags of crisps and diet cokes that went on to litter the stage were a pale imitation of the quirky delight of, for example, the party scene in the company’s Twelfth Night. Nor were there the unifying musical moments, with the overpowering electronic score here, while skilfully performed, instead bludgeoning sense. The drone led to the show becoming at times monotonous and dull, the one quality I never expected to find in a Filter show.

Yet when silence fell, as for the ‘poor player’ speech, or when the sound took on a more musical quality, as during the closing sequence dominated by a glockenspiel played with a violin bow, the soundscape of the production worked beautifully. Roberts’s gruff, embattled Macbeth spoke with a sense of desperation, the inevitability of his action always present, and his evocative, fixed gestures (such as the crouched posture with which he held the daggers) were bizarrely and pleasingly reminiscent of Kurosawa. While within the style of the production his role was to present the part of Macbeth rather than explore the outer reaches of a severely abbreviated text (the performance lasted only eighty minutes), Roberts still conveyed a war-weary man beaten down by the relentless presence of the supernatural.

While the production may not have been a triumph, it was full of interesting moments: Banquo, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth positioning themselves at three points of a triangle of complicity spanning the length and depth of the stage; Banquo’s ghost whipping a party bag over her shoulder before she left the stage; the final cyclical moment as a witch asked when they three would meet again. With more playfulness and more sustained interest in its own devices this could have been a truly enlightening and entertaining production; as it was, its uncanny combination of disparity and monotony left me fighting to maintain interest. Hopefully, as with its other long-running Shakespeare productions, the extraordinarily talented ensemble will continue developing this to reconstruct a full show from the deconstructed materials of Macbeth.

Posted in Theatre review