May 12, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
Macbeth (Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank) @ Shakespeare’s Globe (webstream)
At a taut ninety minutes, the Playing Shakespeare production of Macbeth staged at Shakespeare’s Globe in early 2020 – just before the pandemic shut down theatres – converts well into a pacey film that preserves the raw energy of a production performed to thousands of schoolchildren (always a reliably vocal audience, especially at the Globe) while offering some rare and surprising interventions. This is Shakespeare for schoolchildren that doesn’t patronise or condescend. It’s straightforward and lean, especially in its intelligent cutting to streamline the action of an already-streamlined play, yet Cressida Brown’s direction finds purpose in some bold choices.
From the production’s start, the camera captures Jessica Murrain’s First Witch lingering among the audience in the pit, revelling in the rainy day by leaning her head up to capture raindrops, all while cradling a small doll. On stage, an eerie and gruesome block made up of contorted bodies, packed together as if they’ve been through a car crusher, gazes ominously at the audience. At an unseen cue, the Witch runs onto the stage and is joined by two other witches, bloodied, who emerge from the pile of bodies, as if coming back to life. One (Mara Allen) even pulls a bloodied knife out of her own body as she says they will meet Macbeth. There’s a clear linkage made here, not too heavy-handed, between their own fate and that of Macbeth – whether or not he was responsible for these bodies in particular, the knife that the Witch pulls out of her own body will be revisited upon him.
Ekow Quartey’s Macbeth is a refreshingly straight-down-the-line villain in this production, though not without his own complexity. Fascinatingly, when Amanda Wright’s Le Beau/Oswald-like Ross – a well-dressed lady of the court with a declamatory air – meets the soldiers, she seems to initially address comments meant for Macbeth to Banquo (Samuel Oatley). It’s not entirely clear if there’s a light commentary on race here – in which even a Black woman assumes the white man is the hero she’s looking for – but the impression that Macbeth is partly unknown and is only just coming into the visibility of those higher than him is an interesting take, and leads to the possibility of others underestimating him/overlooking him. Certainly this Macbeth seems keen for respect, and upon getting the crown he struts and laughs unreservedly, taking up space where earlier he had been more unobtrusive in group scenes. This Macbeth wants to be seen, and to be taken seriously, and he gains his wish.
In another interesting choice, Lady Macbeth (Elly Condron) is pregnant; Macbeth drops to kiss her belly when he arrives home. The presence of the unborn child is inevitably a focal point, and renders her promises to dash the suckling child especially visceral, full of promise and threat that Macbeth – invested in his future heir – takes seriously. The child is lost; at the end of the banquet scene, the witches emerge as Macbeth promises to go visit them, and Lady Macbeth begins crying out in pain, just as the Witches hold up a doll. There’s a clear exchange here – his child for theirs, the dead children represented by the doll held by the First Witch from the production’s start – and a personal kind of vengeance is in play.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are individualists in a world dominated by the paraphernalia of the state. Saltires decorate the auditorium, emblazoned with a ‘D’ for Duncan, and Duncan’s nobles wear royal blue. There’s a bit of irreverent decadence, especially in the enormous ‘CONGRATS’ balloons and confetti that welcome Duncan to Macbeth’s castle, and the tacky personalised canvas chair emblazoned with ‘King’. But there’s also a sense of the royal edifice and hereditary custom, especially as a white-robed Duncan (Dickon Tyrrell) enters the stage waving his hand regally towards the audience to signal for applause, while the shorts-wearing, bespectacled Malcolm (Aidan Cheng) totters after him. This performative state is held up both for mockery and as an aspirational ideal, and when the Macbeths are crowned, it’s a large ‘M’ that is emblazoned within the saltire. A St George’s flag is unfurled during the England scene and, in an uncomfortable rewriting of history whose implications make sense in context even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny, when Malcolm dubs the thanes earls, an enormous Union Jack unfurls, suggesting an integrated Britain beholden to Macbeth’s defeat.
The ascension to kingship allows for Macbeth to take on the trappings that he appeared to envy in Duncan; at the start of the banquet scene, he curries favour with the audience, waving to them and asking for applause (which, beautifully, the school-aged audience give in ambivalent style, with no small amount of booing). The contrast between his smug courting of praise and the reaction he gets is a fascinating one. This Macbeth regularly confides in the audience, whether in shouted conspiracy up to the galleries or downstage in smiles and charm. Yet it’s Banquo and Fleance (Allen) who get the warm reactions from the audience. Fleance is first introduced sneaking up on his dad while holding a super-soaker, and the audience shout warnings, then offer sympathetic ‘awws’ as father and son embrace. Later, during the murder, Banquo kisses Fleance on the head and gets him to run, Fleance squirting his water pistol into the eyes of the murderer who tries to confront him.
From the opening image of the bloodied bodies, the production doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the play. The murderers that confront Banquo wear terrifying clown masks, and the same when coming for Lady Macduff (Murrain). She has only one child, a baby in a crib, and confronts the murderers alone; they wrap a flag around her neck and drag her off, throttling her as she goes; then one of the murderers returns to the crib, reaches down, and breaks the baby’s neck before carrying the crib off. Later, Lady Macbeth appears alone for her sleepwalking and reaches down for her baby bump before realising she has lost her child, screaming painfully. There’s a strong sense of loss, especially as it relates to children, with the vulnerability of the young and unborn emphasised in order to root Macbeth’s evil in tangible consequences.
Banquo returns as a surprisingly casual, but effective, Ghost during the banquet. He sits in Macbeth’s chair, reclining and looking up with a smile at Macbeth, his confident delight in Macbeth’s terror at odds with the puzzled reactions of those around him. He stands and forces Macbeth into a corner of the stage, approaching him without threatening. A little later in the scene, as Macbeth proposes a toast to the absent Banquo, the Ghost moves slowly behind him, grabbing the cup and forcing Macbeth to tumble backwards onto the floor. The combination of fear and physical comedy leaves Macbeth the butt of the audience’s laughter, while also undermining any dignity he has tried to create for himself.
The humour throughout is well played. Molly Logan’s Porter tries to start bad ‘Knock knock’ jokes with the audience: ‘Who’s there? Toby. Toby who? Toby or not Toby’ gets precisely the groan it deserves, though a running joke with a bucket that the Porter has just vomited into gets a more visceral reaction as she threatens to throw its contents over the audience. Rather than just milk the role for bawdiness, however, the Porter is used to help create a striking spatial resonance to the arrival of Macduff (Jack Wilkinson) – the knocking comes from outside the Globe auditorium, and the Porter rushes through the crowd to open the door and escort Macduff and Ross back to the stage. Once onstage, Macbeth tries to stop Macduff walking through to Duncan’s chambers with lots of polite laughter; all of this adds to the sense of the tiring house as a place of unseen terrors. The Porter hangs around to take the role of the Old Man in the post-discovery scene with Macduff and Ross, reuniting the three who had begun this sequence as a group.
The climactic action introduces some ambivalence. In the England scene, Macduff is enraged by Malcolm’s claims about his vice, and turns violently on him, grabbing the scared young man by the lapels; it is in fear for his own safety that Malcolm admits he was lying. After an energetic battle – which sees Birnam Wood visualised as a green tarpaulin passed over the audience, and a lively sword fight between Macbeth and Macduff – Macduff enters holding Macbeth’s heart (rather than his head) aloft and throws the crown towards Malcolm. Malcolm puts it on and totters uncertainly towards the audience, waiting for applause and marking the silence before they finally acknowledge him as king. Once thus acknowledged, though, he adopts the same regal wave as his father and uses the Royal We, growing in confidence even as he grows into his kingship. The First Witch’s final ‘When shall we three meet again?’ is a typical gesture towards the circularity of Macbeth, and a reminder of the implied wrongs of the play’s start that have still not necessarily been redressed. It’s a bold production that offers creative interventions, refuses to patronise, and remains healthily cynical about the possibility of redemption.