Poster featuring a raven

December 16, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Macbeth – which of course, may well have been adapted for the King’s Men after the company’s acquisition of the Blackfriars – seems ideally suited to the chiaroscuro potential of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. More so than any production I’ve seen there since The Duchess of Malfi, Robert Hastie’s production played with the sounds that emerge from shadows, the aural possibilities of a theatre in total blackout, and the uncanny of what lies just outside of the range of a candle.

The shadows stood in for the supernatural in a production that downplayed the role of the witches (including cutting all of their final scene before Macbeth’s arrival, but exaggerated the eeriness of what presence they had. An odd opening gambit saw a group of hooded figures enter and convene around a fallen chandelier; the figures drew straws, with those who took the three longest becoming the witches. It wasn’t clear if this was a genuine ballot a la Maria Aberg’s RSC Faustus, but as these witches did not appear after their first meeting with Macbeth, the issue was moot.

The witches were initially a group of indistinct figures, lingering in the darkness around the stage. For the more effective apparitions scene, however, they disappeared entirely and, with Macbeth lit onstage by a single candle, many voices spoke from all around the auditorium, whispering and knocking to create a surround-sound effect of overwhelming dread. The tiring house doors opened to reveal flickers of light while voices spoke for the apparitions, and on his demand to know Banquo’s future, the auditorium plunged into full darkness before figures appeared at the auditorium entrances in death eater masks.

This atmosphere of dread was, somewhat disappointingly, offset by a title performance that in the first half was so quotidian that he became the first Macbeth I could describe sincerely as ‘affable’. Partly this was an effect of downplaying the visual presence of Macbeth as a soldier – we barely saw him in full light until his return to his home. But Paul Ready’s performance went further than I’ve ever seen in characterising Macbeth as fundamentally spineless. Stammering and anxious, fearful and indecisive, he was positively nice for much of the show, with a charismatic smile that indicated his closeness to Banquo. Such a reading makes good sense – late in the play Macbeth makes specific reference to having lost his fear – but it made for an uncharacteristically low stakes performance, Macbeth responding gently and somewhat simperingly to events.

The performance made best sense when real life husband and wife team Ready and Michelle Terry were working together. Terry’s skill with unexpected line readings had variable effect here – some of the admonitions usually directed to the nobles in the banquet scene were spoken to Macbeth here, to great effect, while her rushing through of lines like ‘unsex me here’ and ‘I have known’ buried the nuance in force of rhetoric. But her strength and force of will contrasted sharply with his insecurity to fine effect. When asked why he had killed Duncan’s men, Macbeth panicked and lost control; Lady Macbeth’s faint was her desperate attempt to draw attention away from his palpable lies.

The Macbeths excelled in the production’s standout scene, the banquet. Banquo was clearly present at the rough table from the start, but shrugged off his shirt as he stood up to reveal his bloodied torso. The Ghost was hurt, betrayed rather than angry, and stretched out his hands imploringly to Macbeth. Meanwhile the nobles, rather than standing back, attempted to restrain Macbeth, leading to the thrilling image of Macbeth thrashing to escape their grasp as the Ghost inexorably approached. Eventually the disappointed Ghost left, but Macbeth’s physical trauma was compellingly realised.

Around the edges of the central performances, a generally strong ensemble developed the play’s textures. Philip Cumbus as Banquo gave a measured, sometimes quizzical performance, making clear his early suspicions of the all-too-enthusiastic Macbeth, and then dying to save Kirsty Rider’s Fleance. The violence of the play was handled effectively, without excess gore but with some brutally personal decisions, such as a murderer snapping Young Macduff’s wooden sword in two and slashing his throat with the jagged edge. The youngsters of this production, Fleance and Young Macduff, were both thrilled to be given weapons at different points, throwing themselves enthusiastically into mimes of stabbing and slashing that hinted at something more pervasively poisonous in this society.

Catrin Aaron’s Lennox was unusually high in the mix, opening the second half with a recap to the audience of the state of Scotland that went further than most productions I’ve seen to emphasise the terror under which the play’s Scots were living. The political skullduggery seemed embedded – Aaron’s Lennox was loyal but too scared to speak out, Marc Elliott’s Ross was sincere but helpless, and the children of the play were taught early to defend themselves in word and action. Malcolm (Kit Young) meanwhile understood the import of his father’s (Joseph Marcell) publicly naming him his successor, and stammered every time he was put into the limelight even as he lovingly fingered the crown.

As the play shifted into its final act, the innovative use of the auditorium came even more into its own. The English army assembled in the gallery, where the musicians (three singer-percussionists who were outstanding throughout with a frenetic mix of styles, chanting and singing and ululating and whispering with abandon through Laura Moody’s innovative score) sang an ominous anthem that reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Holy Shit Balls’ from Deadpool 2Anna-Marie Nabirye’s Macduff made for a perfect adversary – upright and unmovable, even in the England scene, and driven by a pure rage that made their final duel – a purposefully messy, emotional fight – especially exciting. The shift to an action mode finally also allowed Ready to find his beat, channelling Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in his drawling snarls at his underlings and his half-amused defiance. His response to Macduff’s revelation of his birth was, hilariously, half a sigh and half a groan of annoyance, as much tired as anything else.

The chamber-like qualities of the play were brought out throughout this production, which through its narrow use of light kept clear focus on the experience of individuals – even at the end, as Malcolm’s final speech was surrounded by actors blowing out candles, until he crowned himself lit by a single flame before blowing even that one out. Moments such as this captured a tiredness and precarity in a play concerned with death, and even if the performances didn’t always carry the weight of the words, the close focus was always rewarding.

Posted in Theatre review