The words 'Macbeth: A Conjuring' next to a candle that has blown out

November 9, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

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

Macbeth: A Conjuring is a welcome anomaly in the era of streamed and socially distanced theatre. For Bonfire Night 2020, as part of its ‘Shakespeare and Fear’ festival, the Globe reunited the cast of its 2018 Macbeth (reviewed on The Bardathon here) to offer a socially distanced, partially staged reading of the play. It’s a great use of the Globe’s resources, taking advantage of a cast who can be readily reassembled, know the playing space and are familiar enough with the play to perform it fully even while on book. But even if social distancing constraints mean that much of this filmed performance takes place on stools, in many ways this reading, performed for the camera in an empty auditorium, is superior to the production on which it is based. For in the permission given by the medium to play it close and intimate, Rob Hastie and Michelle Terry’s reimagined production fully realises the chamber atmosphere that the fully staged version aimed at, and creates one of the most intense, soft, and tense Macbeths I’ve seen.

Key to this reading’s success is the simple schematic staging. Three stools are arranged on stage in a triangle. The upstage stool, dead centre, takes the function of a chair of power, the primary locus of each scene, giving its occupant a commanding view of the stage and orienting the stage in relation to them. The two downstage stools, placed symmetrically off-centre, triangulate that central seat, allowing for duologues between people of equal power (as when Ross and Macduff mutter after Macbeth is crowned), or creating an equilateral triangle with the third seat (as with the Witches). This central staging principle sets up a clearly intelligible power structure for each scene that can then be cleverly subverted when necessary, and around which other action can be managed. The rest of the cast sit around the edges of the stage when not ‘on’, all facing in towards the central triangle and creating an intimate space under constant surveillance.

The central triangle becomes a space of privacy and privilege. The witches’ first two scenes are beautifully subtle, with the witches coy as they flicker their eyes back and forth while sat on the stools, chins slightly raised and wearing quiet smiles, as they speak of their deeds and prophecies. The gentle, amused tones of Catrin AaronNorah Lopez Holden (the only new member of this company, replacing Philippine Velge) and Terry establish a shared confidence between the three that keeps Macbeth (Paul Ready) and Banquo (Philip Cumbus) firmly outside. Macbeth and Banquo occupy the second most important space of the production, standing either side of the central upstage entrance. This position is regularly taken by people on the margins, as when Macbeth is talking to the Murderer at the edge of the banquet, or the nobles of 5.2 quickly whisper their news. These introductory scenes are interspersed with Duncan (in the seat of power) and Malcolm hearing the Captain’s words, and the three scenes work together to establish the reading’s use of space, and asserting inner and outer spheres of influence. Macbeth’s progression to the centre of the circle is gradual – he begins at the margins, watching the witches from upstage; as he comes to Duncan, he takes one of the downstage stools, but is shocked when Malcolm – who is at the edge of the stage, not part of the triangle – is appointed Prince of Cumberland. With Lady Macbeth, the two share the downstage seats, speaking in hushed tones to one another. Only once he establishes his claim to the throne does he take the seat of power for himself.

The production’s systematic use of space is emphasised further by the social distancing. The cast stay well apart from one another, wearing masks when not taking part in the scene (the masks are used to great effect for the murderers, who keep them on during their action). The exception is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Terry again), who are married in real life and thus are able to touch one another. In the context of this production, this works to tremendous effect, as these are the only two characters able to get close to one another. When they meet to embrace or scheme, they pull the two downstage stools closer together, and can touch one another; following the public announcement of Duncan’s murder, they draw together in the shadows of the central upstage entrance; when Macbeth starts to withdraw from Lady Macbeth after he is crowned, he yanks his arm away from her. Their unique ability to touch, and the deprivation of it, becomes loaded with significance, and the unique intimacy between these two that gives them power slowly becomes a distance occasioned not by external pressure, but by choice.

Ready’s performance works far better for me in this setting. It’s a twitchy, nervous performance, reflective and emotional, as when he lets himself slump on Lady Macbeth’s ‘we fail’. But seen in close-up, there’s also much more resolve here than I remember from watching the original production. While Macbeth is given early on to panic, as when he stammers over his explanation of why he killed Duncan’s servants, he finds a quiet confidence when crowned, dismissing Lady Macbeth confidently, pulling away from her when she reaches out to him, and always trying to preserve his dignity. The banquet scene unsettles him, and it’s a truly unsettling scene here, with Banquo’s ghost first unmasking and unhooding himself, and then standing as a challenge rather than an aggressive threat, leaving Macbeth gibbering in his chair. But once the rest of the guests have gone, Macbeth steels himself. Lady Macbeth reaches out to him with gentleness on ‘You lack the season of all natures’, but he grabs her wrist and then pushes her away roughly. Similarly, his promise of death to Macduff’s family is given with complete purpose, and his preparations for war in Act 5 with almost indifferent confidence (albeit also showing anger at the terrified Seyton [Holden] stammering over her news).

In the other performances, too, the chamber environment finds the subtleties. Lady Macbeth rattles out the letter from Macbeth that she is reading, but pauses for a long time after ‘Hail king’ before re-reading the line and continuing more slowly. Terry is, in my experience, usually given to big performances, and so it’s wonderful to see her doing something so restrained; more than any other actor, she really works with the camera, turning after the shrieks of the night owls as if to reassure us. She’s also an unusually subdued Lady Macbeth, especially as she repeatedly tries to reach out to Macbeth as he pulls away from her. During the banquet and the sleepwalking scene she takes the seat of power, and in the sleepwalking the camera fascinatingly draws in close on her hands as they rub on top of her script – an unusual and striking image, the hands rubbing against and on top of the text, obscuring it, as if the gestures are taking over her prepared words.

The quietness of the whole production definitely slows it down and takes away something of the energy, but this works surprisingly to create a peaceful air that the play’s crimes disrupt. Whether it’s Duncan (Joseph Marcell) and Banquo chatting politely about the castle’s pleasant seat, or Macduff (Anna-Maria Nabirye) joking with the Porter (Marcell again), the central staging of actors sat down speaking to one another creates an informal warmth between people. The person who is most separate from this is Banquo, who unusually stands in order to talk to Fleance (Kirsty Rider, who for my money is the production’s MVP in a series of great small roles, all performed with a wry smile), agitated and covering his face with his hands on ‘a heavy summons lies upon me’. Ross (Marc Elliott) also enjoys an unusual amount of sole focus, often in soliloquy or on the fringes having whispered conversations with others, and his liminal position in the play’s politics comes across nicely in this stripped down staging as he uses the chairs to create lines of intrigue across the stage. And Malcolm (Kit Young) holds court from the centre of power in quiet, deliberate tones, keeping his voice low as he outlines his plans. Interestingly, one disruption to the seat of power comes during the England scene, when Macduff takes the  seat, emphasising that it is Macduff, and not Malcolm, who is the centre of that scene, as made clear in Nabirye’s powerfully restrained reaction to the news of the murder of Macduff’s family.

The advantage of the sparse staging is that scenes such as the above come more to the fore than usual. The bigger set pieces, on the other hand, are reworked cleverly for the socially distanced space. Banquo’s murder is done with a quiet resignation. Banquo sees what awaits him and tells Fleance to fly. Once Fleance has sat down, Banquo walks across the stage while the Murderers cross in the opposite direction; as they pass, Banquo reacts as if hit, and slumps into a chair. Lady Macduff’s (Rider) murder is even more menacing – she is simply backed into the side of the stage by a Murderer advancing upon her, the two keeping socially distanced at all times until there is no more space left for her to flee. And for the final battles, Macbeth and Young Siward (Rider) and then Macduff circle one another around the stage, facing off. What’s more important here than violence is the attitude of the violence. When Macbeth hears the truth of Macduff’s birth, he simply slumps into one of the downstage stools as if giving up quietly.

Simon Livingstone’s camera direction for this film is quiet, unobtrusive, but with two major areas where it draws attention to itself. The first of these is in soliloquy. Some soliloquies are given in more or less unbroken shots direct to a camera, but as the production goes on, the film’s editing starts being more disruptive – during ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, for example, the shot changes several times quickly, seeing Macbeth from multiple angles and fragmenting his speech. More effective, however, is the stunningly shot return visit to the witches for the apparitions. During this scene, the witches aren’t seen at all, at least not on film. Instead, Macbeth sits central on the stage, and as the witches speak, carefully positioned cameras shoot him through a camera flame, the flame clearly in focus in the foreground while Macbeth blurs in the background, and the witches are heard in voiceover. At other points during this sequence, the camera captures only the bottom half of Macbeth’s face, or spins slowly around, creating a hallucinatory impression. It’s a bravura sequence in such a simply shot production, but throughout the camerawork is sympathetic to the work of the actors.

This socially distanced Macbeth is perfect for the COVID era, the obscurity of face masks heightening the show’s sense of paranoia and uncertainty, the space between actors forcing people to look rather than touch and separating them at moments of intimacy, whether love or death; and the quiet lull of quarantine pervades the production, broken only occasionally, as in Macduff’s roar for attention when Duncan’s body is found. It reimagines the play as one of quiet dread, considered evil, and fear that roots one to the seat rather than creating energy. And for all that theatre has worked hard to find dynamic ways to utilise new communications tools like Zoom to create exciting work, Macbeth: A Conjuring makes a powerful case for how even the simplest of stagings to allow bodies to be in a room together can illuminate so much.

Posted in Theatre review