Thursday 6 May 2010

Not the star of the show

Macbeth, Globe Theatre, London

Lucy Bailey understands how to make Shakespeare work at the Globe. That isn’t to say this is a fantastic production of Macbeth – some of the principal characters feel seriously muddled and a number of fine speeches never quite take flight – but it is a still a uniquely involving Globe theatre experience. This is Bailey’s fifth production at the Globe and most have been united by two key considerations: a design that incorporates and delights in the obscurities of the Globe stage space and a company that is deeply aware of its audience. The result is a peculiarly alive piece of theatre; an immediate, amusing and profoundly accessible show, that touches on profundities but does not dwell on them.

Bailey’s shows feel much like how I imagine Shakespeare might’ve felt ‘back then’; not weighed down by the burden to find new interpretive angles, but held together by a keen desire to engage the audience – with whatever means seem fit. This should really be the driving force behind any Globe production; it is the only mainstream theatre that requires its audience to stand for nearly three hours and, as such, demands a particularly un-pretentious and pragmatic approach. Bailey also recognises that a lot of the comic sections (and boy, does she make excellent use of the frequently botched-up porter scene), rather than awkward moments to be brushed over, are there for a very practical purpose: to keep the audience awake and happy. 

It is the design, this time created by Katrina Lindsay, which enables Bailey to work her Globe magic; to weave the stage, actors, auditorium and audience so tightly together, that the seams are tough to spot. Bailey’s memorable productions of ‘Titus’ and ‘Timon’ both embraced and manipulated the Globe space to great effect. With her Macbeth, Bailey has (she notes in the programme) converted the auditorium into a Medieval Hell; a huge black sheet swings out from the stage, reaching over the top of the standing space below. Poked into this canopy are little holes through which the spectators must squeeze their heads. This clever design unites the audience with the action on-stage, whilst also creating a fine image of lost and disembodied souls, to the spectators watching from above.

This striking design also generates fear before the play has begun: as the audience files in, the three witches (truly terrifying – more on them later) scamper beneath the sheets, weaving and cackling their way through a crowd of screaming and giddy spectators. When the play opens, broken men caked in blood rip through the black sheet, groaning and stretching out for salvation. It is a shocking moment; one that puts the audience on edge, brings alive the unpredictably of the stage space and sets the context for this exceptionally blood-soaked, visceral and cruel Macbeth.

Guarding these lost souls – or fallen soldiers – are the three witches, whom Bailey refers to as ‘the gatekeepers of hell’. This description does not disappoint. These are the scariest witches I’ve seen; far scarier than the non-existent ones portrayed in the recent Cheek by Jowl production, which left the weird sisters up to the audience’s imagination. It turns out Bailey’s imagined witches are much fiercer and wilder than anything I conjured up during Cheek By Jowl’s more ethereal affair. They are gnarled, stooped and pinched looking women; draped in purple and with faces subtly chalked in white. They walk like they are infecting the ground. They cackle like they are infecting the air. And, from the time they summon Macbeth to the woods (at least that is what it feels like here), to the time they watch, delightedly, as Macbeth is slain by Macduff, they are in complete control.

This dominance of the witches – no matter how electrifying it might be for the audience caught up amongst them – does, however, create interpretative problems later on. It takes a lot of agency and responsibility away from Macbeth; he becomes a pawn in the their game and, as a consequence, a less compelling role. Elliot Cowan, as Macbeth, is by no means the star of this show.

In fact, Macbeth’s character doesn’t seem to matter greatly here. Cowan initially plays him as a rather straight soldier - not far off from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. This works initially, when he unquestioningly accepts the three witches bizarre prophesy. Yet, as Macbeth grows more complicated once he has murdered Duncan - as he starts to deeply and sometimes cynically reflect on his dilemma – Cowan gets stuck with his interpretation. He suddenly changes tack and begins pronouncing Shakespeare in a peculiarly modern manner, with strange intonations and frequent, random changes in pitch. He begins to sound like Simon-Russell Beale on a bad day.

This new approach goes against his earlier portrayal as Macbeth as a war-torn and randy soldier. The two halves don’t fit together and, with the compelling three witches to compete against, Cowan’s presence falters. The great speeches, most of which come later on, feel muted and stilted and the reflections on the cruel, transient nature of life sound odd coming from this stiff soldier’s mouth. 

Lady Macbeth’s journey blows off course, too. At the start, Laura Rogers plays her as exceptionally innocent – all nicely carved out speeches in light, dulcet tones – which clashes awkwardly with the early, exhilarating ‘unsex me now’ monologue. This palpable innocence also doesn’t help when Lady Macbeth urges her husband to kill the King. Sure, Rogers rubs up raunchily against Macbeth and orders him to ‘be a man’ but screaming bloody murder with a clean and clipped delivery doesn’t really work. 

Rogers is better, later on, when the play allows her to succumb to the madness - to cast aside the shackles of innocence and get down to the gritty and messy stuff. Her sleepwalking monologue works well and, admittedly, is given extra clarity by this earlier and now snuffed-out innocence.

That the two principal characters fit awkwardly into this production, hints at Bailey’s priorities. In the programme notes, Bailey compares Macbeth to a ‘modern slasher film’ and I suspect the desire to frighten, engage and spill blood, has slightly drowned out deeper questions of character and motive. But this is still a show that opens up the gates of hell, shows us the deep chaos and river of blood boiling beneath (‘I am steeped in blood so far…’) and portrays how easy it is for a soldier to slip in and drown.


Till 27 June 2010


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The Stage
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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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