A throne standing on a pile of skulls

March 6, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Derby Theatre) @ Derby Theatre

It can seem like faint praise to focus on a production’s lighting, but Derby Theatre’s new Macbeth was truly extraordinarily well lit. Daniella Beattie’s simple designs created a world of shadow and fear, in combination with Ruari Murchison’s set. For much of the production, a deep stage heavily front-lit created an upstage area that was a void of black, into and from which actors disappeared and appeared with remarkable speed; this was one of the most convincing vanishings I’ve ever seen for the Witches, who simply stood near the edge of the light and stepped into blackness. And the extensive use of back-lighting allowed for battles between iconic silhouettes to be fought on a series of slatted curtains, the shadows reaching the full height of the stage and turning Macbeth into an emblematic tragedy of violence.

Douglas Rintoul’s traditionally oriented production revelled in its spectacular visuals, turning the stage of Derby Theatre into an austere medieval world composed of very few pieces of furniture (a spartan wooden throne, a long table) but lit evocatively by lightning and filled with empty spaces onto which the horrors of the play could be projected. The opening image saw a young boy flying a kite in the middle of the stage; then the curtains fell, and the boy’s silhouette was seen caught up in a slow-motion bloody battle. Another flash of lightning, and the witches were centre-stage, one of them screaming over the body of the boy. While this personal motivation was not revisited (a missed opportunity), the simple images quickly sketched a world of sudden violence and innocent victims.

Within this world, Rintoul’s production offered a straightforward reading of the play that was almost surprising in its avoidance of conceptual innovation or complex characterisation, instead taking the most well-worn readings of characters and allowing a solid cast to explore them. A case in point was Phoebe Sparrow’s Lady Macbeth. Wearing a red dress, she was perhaps the most straightforwardly villainous Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen; there were no allusions to back story, no attempts to show trauma, no business to suggest complex societal constraints. Instead, Sparrow simply played the character as an ambitious woman, energised by the thought of promotion and industrious/proactive in urging Macbeth to murder and castigating him for only half-finishing the job. She was taken aback to be brutally dismissed by Macbeth as he came to power, and watched with abandonment as he left the banquet after Banquo’s interruption. The simplicity of her performance is not a criticism; indeed, there was a clarity to the performance and to her role in the play that more overly determined Lady Macbeths often miss. The sleepwalking scene, just her experiencing her trauma by candlelight while her shadow was thrown up on a side wall, was beautifully rendered, a riveting exposure of guilt caused by being sidelined after pushing for their deeds.

Similarly, Paul Tinto’s Macbeth was an ambitious man, smiling at the first mention of his future crown, and using his asides to set out his plans. There was a proverbial quality to this Macbeth – he almost always came to the front of the stage to deliver his final couplets, as if casting a moral for the scene – and this quality led to an interesting mix of detachment and relish in the role. Both were evident in the banquet scene. Macbeth welcomed the nobles with a genial air, but as Adam Karim’s Banquo emerged from a backlit upstage area and joined the table, Macbeth’s reaction was first one of frenetic fear, and then of cocky disregard; Lady Macbeth and the nobles were most shocked as Macbeth drew a knife and then raced at the Ghost, swiping desperately at thin air. After Lady Macbeth had dismissed their guests, however, Macbeth adopted a more laconic air, even laughing, before staggering out, weary and half-beaten but smiling.

This detachment was even more evident in the production’s second half. Tinto’s delivery (notwithstanding an occasional tendency to add extra syllables to lines extra-metrically) was strong and reflective throughout, giving Macbeth a whimsical air without slowing the production down. He was at his strongest when receiving the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, taking the smallest of steps backwards before nodding and giving his monologue with an air of resigned bitterness. As he awaited the English troops, he sat on a throne atop the large table, laughing with Seyton (Daniel Kendrick) and the Doctor (Martin Johnston) in confidence, a confidence he kept up throughout the first part of his duel with Macduff (Ewan Somers). This fight was another highlight, Bethan Clark’s direction creating a multifaceted combat that made use of complex defensive gestures, both men grabbing their blades at different points. As they rejoined combat after Macduff’s revelation, the fight took in different levels as they climbed on the table, before Macduff smoothly kicked Macbeth behind the curtains and then, in silhouette, plunged his sword through Macbeth’s head.

While the lack of interpretive intervention made this Macbeth a little dry, then, the trade-off was to allow parts of the text that sometimes get over-shadowed to come more to the fore. Here, the Witches were largely unobtrusive, seen cackling around a pot as they created their potions and trading gossip about their doings; the most spectacular part of their performance saw them grab Macbeth for the apparitions, which appeared in silhouette against the back curtains while they screamed their words at him, before collapsing, exhausted. But if the Witches were less of a feature, the thanes got more stage-time. Watching Angus (Rikki Chamberlain) and Lennox (Connie Walker) mutter together, shouting out protestations of loyalty for the benefit of the eavesdropping, thuggish Seyton before whispering their true intentions to one another, the politics of the Scottish court seemed more than usually important, with the bonds between these two and Macduff and Ross (David Nellist) emphasised through embraces and other physical language. As Malcolm (Tilda Wickham) brought them together for the climax (and with the Siwards cut), there was a strong sense of Scotland rousing itself to take back control.

The bonds that tied the thanes also nicely connected the different elements of the plot, with Angus going straight from greeting Macbeth after his final encounter with the Witches to plotting with Lennox, and Ross moving straight from Lady Macduff’s home to England. The fluid space connected the different areas nicely, to best effect in the murder of Macduff’s family. Lady Macduff (Danielle Kassaraté) protected her son, standing downstage while he sat behind her, innocently offering his ripostes. When the murderers entered, they dragged both of them behind the curtains, which were spattered with blood as the two bodies fell partly through. But as they stood up and joined one another to leave the stage, they cast a final look at the arriving Macduff and Malcolm, Macduff’s wife lingering to see her husband one last time before she disappeared into darkness. Moments like this were few and far between, but powerful when they landed.

The actual performances were earnest, with some occasional weaknesses; one actor in particular insisted on inserting heavy pauses at the ends of verse lines regardless of the sense, leaving speeches sounding like Quince’s nonsensical prologue. But there was some wonderful use of quietness throughout. Nellist, in particular, gave Ross a quiet, emotional air, the character often lowering his voice as he parted, and hesitating painfully over the delivery of the news of Lady Macduff’s death. Again, the emotional bonds between the nobles were strongly felt, and Wickham did some good work with Malcolm, capturing the anxiety and ambivalence of the character – including while finally taking the crown, voice shaking while pronouncing the thanes earls, and quickly leaving the stage. Even Seyton, presented as a handy and obtrusive thug who Lady Macbeth eyed up with disdain, had his moments of surprising empathy, as when he stumbled over the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, realising the effect this would have on his king.

This emphasis on the more serious aspects left little space for humour, though Chamberlain had a ball as the Porter, offering a series of tortuous squeaking noises as he pretended to open the door for several successive guests to Hell, before giving a mimed depiction of lechery that left Lennox (and the school groups at this performance) in stitches and Macduff disapproving. Rather than humour, other small roles developed the world of sufferers. The Old Man (Johnston) was a homeless beggar, pontificating on how things used to be before accepting a coin from Ross. The Murderers (Nellist and Colette McNulty), meanwhile, wore hangdog expressions and sat slumped together on a bench as Macbeth strutted up and down in front of them; they were eager to please but clearly in a far more abject position. And the Doctor (Johnston again) was a troubled man, shocked at Lady Macbeth’s words, and then desperate to get away from Macbeth, while trying to give the king what he wanted with as cheery an air as he could summon up.

In many ways, then, the production was strongest when it tried to do least, its focus on developing meaningful emotional connections working well to find interesting detail in the text. Its more inventive flights of fancy were rather less successful for their disconnect. Instead of returning to the Witch’s dead child at the end of the production, instead we were given a brief reveal of Fleance, standing with a crown and a sword, having appeared in the same position in silhouette as one of the apparitions; the image, however, was too fleeting to connect meaningfully to other points of the play. The sight of Macbeth’s head swinging from a hook, meanwhile, was effective as an image but jarred aesthetically with the rest of the play. Instead, more powerful as an ending was Macduff getting down wearily from the table on which he had presented the head to Malcolm, his slow, tired descent in the wake of the other nobles a reminder of what he had endured.

Posted in Theatre review