Black and white image of a woman looking at screen, with the word 'Macbeth'

October 31, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (Big Telly) @ Zoom

Macbeth’s uncanniness, its waywardness (to take the word that Scott Newstok and Ayanna Thompson’s important book privileges), is central to its blurring of boundaries, its confusion between what is real and what is not. Zoom offers an ideal medium to explore this uncanniness. Big Telly’s production, broadcast in collaboration with Creation Theatre, exploited all the affordances of Zoom to integrate pre-recorded with live footage in ways that continually disrupted temporal and geographic space. And by foregrounding the artifice of production itself, the production left ambiguous its sense of who was controlling what exactly we see, or think we are seeing.

The first serious big of uncanniness had particular specificity; the 7pm performance on Hallowe’en 2020 coincided exactly with Boris Johnson taking the podium to announce the next national lockdown, something that Big Telly could not have anticipated when planning to open their own production with a COVID-briefing style introduction. Here, the Prime Minister and other senior figures warned against the rise in witches, advising people to close their curtains and hide away. This opening evocation of paranoia and shutting oneself away compressed a growing climate of xenophobia with the enforced isolation of lockdown, and the setting of much of the production in narrow houses and enclosed bedrooms further evoked a sense of a society in a state of withdrawal.

These same ministers, though, were then seen getting changed and becoming the witches, preparing to meet Macbeth. The precise nature of these witches was left appropriately ambiguous, but their magic was rooted in theatricality. In the bravura apparitions scene, Macbeth arrived at an empty theatre while the Witches stood in the wings of the stage, using flying and special effects to conjure up the apparitions. The manipulation of theatrical machinery was conflated with the manipulation of Zoom trickery in the use of fabrics, paint and other surfaces that could act as green screens for overlapping video images, allowing the witches to seemingly conjure whole other scenes out of thin air and allow them to overwhelm the space they were ‘really’ in. Such mastery of the conditions of looking and of the principles of editing gave the witches ultimate power within this world.

The production developed on previous immersive Zoom productions, though the immersive elements here were largely ineffectual. Using a version of ‘Together’ view, various audience members were imported into the Macbeths’ banquet or into the witches’ theatre to act as extras, but this didn’t add anything particular to the scene, and the problems of scale as heads of various sizes were positioned floating in front of chairs made these scenes look cheap. Much more effective was the occasional use of full view of audience members, especially when invited to stand in as the line of Banquo’s descendants, or when waving the new king Macbeth into court. In general, though, it felt like the production was working over-hard to find excuses to put audience members in the action, and the signposting of these moments and general comic tone as audience members giggled to see themselves in place worked against the creation of a more eerie tone elsewhere.

Indeed, from a technical point of view, much of the best work of the production was the pre-recorded material. The shots of Lady Macbeth walking across a beach and into the sea for her suicide were evocative and gave a sense of scale and location that were absent for the rest of the production; recycled shots of cameras pointing up and capturing witches spinning over them framed against ceiling lights were disorienting; and the point-of-view montages of Lady Macbeth walking through her house – which skilfully interweaved different camera views and material that was presumably pre-recorded so seamlessly that one couldn’t see the joins – were of filmic quality. And the more inventively shot live footage was similarly filmic, especially in the Blair Witch-referencing up-their-noses shots of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth panicking after the murder, the fast edits of Macbeth and Macduff’s duel, and the jump scares of Lady Macduff’s house. The problem was that these elements were so neatly done that I found myself at times wishing I was watching a full film.

It was in the integration of live elements that the production looked ropier. The problems of scale on projected backdrops were particularly frustrating, with both Dharmesh Patel’s Banquo and Lady Macbeth at times made to look as if they were two feet tall against enormous staircases and doors. An especially frustrating sequence saw Lady Macbeth in her bedroom and Macbeth joining her out of shot; angles of Lady Macbeth moving around in her bedroom, putting on a dress, planning the murder, were cross-cut with images of an out-of-perspective Macbeth backed into a corner against a virtual backdrop of a bedroom wall. The stark division and discontinuous use of space worked against the attempt to create the illusion of intimacy, rather drawing attention to the fact that none of these actors were in the same place. The production was far, far more effective when using montage to elide space more thoroughly, or incorporated overt technology (Aonghus Óg McAnally’s Ross appearing on a video call to Lady Macduff) that allowed the play’s spatial logic to feel more natural.

As has regularly been the case for these seventy-minute Zoom Shakespeares, the emphasis was more on the technology that enabled the production to happen rather than on the coherence of the play itself. Dennis Herdman made for a decent Macbeth, steely-eyed and determined in his initial ambition, jittery and uncertain after the murder, furious and terrified alike when approached by Banquo (who floated superimposed on the screen in a nice touch during the banquet scene), and belligerent when confronting the witches and apparitions. The wild shifts in tone from implied epic (the confrontation on a rainy road with the witches) to domestic drama with Lady Macbeth, to broad comedy in the satirical images of the gilt palace, to attempts at something more emotional, made it hard to determine much of a through-line for the character though, and Macbeth himself seemed like a place-holder, an avatar in a shifting world convened by the witches. Nicky Harley had more success as Lady Macbeth because her scenes were more contained – pretty much the whole of Act 2 took place in her bedroom, oriented around her management of the space, her going downstairs to welcome messengers and Duncan, her delineation of the private environment where she and Macbeth could talk. Shot from multiple hidden cameras, Lady Macbeth felt like the most literally three-dimensional figure in the production, and coupled with her on-location death, gave the play its emotional heart.

The shifts from superimposed outdoor backgrounds to the confines of a Belfast terraced house to a gilt palace to a closed theatre seemed to deliberately keep the play in no fixed place. And this is where the conceit of the witches as theatre-makers themselves, calling out stage management cues and panicking in the wings when they weren’t ready to put their show on for Macbeth, worked quite nicely. The slippage of environments enabled by the quite magnificent use of fabrics and paints to seemingly create holes in the screen that revealed other scenes turned the whole production into an assemblage of overlapping scenes. In some ways, it turned filmic montage into a theatrical device, allowing for quick juxtapositions and shots within shots. This was coupled with more traditional editing choices, such as the smash cut from Lady Macduff’s murder to Macduff going ‘all my pretty ones?’, eliding cause and consequence.

The production quality was also evident in the use of filters to switch between black-and-white, red filters (for after the murder) and full colour, shifting quickly to evoke CCTV, documentary, epic, naturalist and satirical modes as needed. And while the genre seemed to shift, the production worked especially well as a Hallowe’en horror film at times. The sight of a real child wandering in as Lady Macduff’s daughter was an especially creepy jolt, and the little glimpses (accompanied by musical stings) of things lingering in the shadows had an Exorcist scare quality to them, which finally paid off with Lady Macduff rolling down the stairs and lying with eyes wide open, dead. In many ways, I’d have preferred to see the version of this which jumped around less in tone and committed more insistently to the claustrophobic domestic horror that the opening briefing implied, but which was all too rarely foregrounded within the production itself.

What Big Telly and Creation have done, again, is demonstrate the technical possibilities of the platform for doing inventive live storytelling and offering intelligent compressions of Shakespeare. I’m still not convinced that the medium is achieving its full potential, partly because it seems to be trying too hard; the overloading of technical tricks here too often drew attention to the limitations in the jarring mismatches of scale, the disappearance of actors into virtual backgrounds, and occasionally ropey sound quality, and my sense is that there was so much going on that the production lost something of its core coherence; I found myself enjoying the pre-recorded or more carefully edited elements much more than the obviously live material. But it’s still exciting to see the medium developing by leaps and bounds, and in its prescient sense of people locking themselves further indoors, it made for a timely Hallowe’en viewing.

Posted in Theatre review