Upon the heath: Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth

The houselights go down and you’re plunged into blackness. Thick total inky suffocating blackness. The audience begins to shift uneasily in their seats, caught off guard, until at the rear of the stage, a thin shaft of light illuminates a disembodied face hanging, impossibly, upside-down from the ceiling. We soon realise it’s a mirror, or what passes for a mirror, and it speaks – all at once female and male, its timbre trebled and possessed – and the alltoofamiliar opening lines of the play echo confusingly around the theatre. As the lights rise on the stage, we see a gently raked space – the “blasted heath” – a scattering of gravel, dirt, and tussocky grass. Suspended above it is a black reflective panel, the counterweight to the heath, a mirror for all intents and purposes. And the play begins.

Bell Shakespeare’s first production for 2012 is Macbeth (or ‘The Scottish Play,’ if you’re a superstitious mug), directed by Peter Evans. It’s a play about politics and power, rumours and gossip, witchcraft and lineage, kings and courts, and was written around 1605 in response to the Gunpowder Plot. All that is merely historical context to this production which, true to Bell Shakespeare’s ethos and house-style, is in modern-dress, a fusion of 21st century jeans, boots and shirts, and 1940s elegance, in the lords’ bright cerulean blue jackets and Lady M’s dresses. Director Peter Evans (who directed Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare in 2011) wanted to focus more on the people and the power, the relationships and humanity of – in – the play, than on the politics, a decision which gave the play a weirdly languid dynamic and yet one of the most insanely gripping and astoundingly brilliant endings I’ve seen yet.

Before I delve into the attractions of the production, there are one or two large hurdles or curiosities I feel I should signpost. For me, the biggest oddity was the text and the pacing. Being a company whose raison d’être is because of Shakespeare’s unfailing ability to capture the essence of humanity and his mirroring of our plight, struggles and joys, a certain fidelity and adherence to the text is necessitated; on the other hand, it can be argued that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s fastest moving plays, and thus needs to be in possession of a relentless driving spiraling rhythm, as it hurtles towards its conclusion and Macbeth’s downfall. The production felt too laboured and long – both in actuality and pacing; some scenes could’ve been cut outright and I don’t think anything would’ve been lost by trimming it further. Often likened to a screenplay, Macbeth is a torrent of paranoia and grief, a perpetually compounding series of events from which there can only be one release. I think they could’ve played with the freneticness of it more, could’ve tightened it further, made it faster, more threatening and dangerous.
The other issue was in Macbeth’s physicality. Evans, along with choreographer/fight director Nigel Poulton, is an avid deployer of Meyerhold’s technique of biomechanics, a movement style which grows out of an application of a physical alphabet of movements and actions in response to the text, one that seeks to remove the ingrained responses we are habitually conditioned to use. The same technique was used to tremendous effect in his production of Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare in 2011, where the cast would cross the stage in a group, either fast or at a slow-motion-like pace and, upon reaching the edge of the space, would slow down, almost stop, then exit. Dan Spielman, as Macbeth, was in possession of a curious springlike physicality, whereby he spent much of his time on stage crouched, or in the process of crouching, his legs more often than not bent to a degree, while at other times, he seemed to be in a dance-like state of being. While it ultimately became clear why this seemed to be the case by the end, it didn’t quite fit with the first three or four acts of the play, where Macbeth goes from being thane of Glamis, then Cawdor then King, and becomes undone by his own desire and ambitions. By the end of act five as he fights Macduff, he was like Richard the Third, a bottled spider who had backed himself into a corner in his absolute belief that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” [IV.1.86-67]; his ballet-like stance and physicality, nimble but not nimble enough, trying desperately to escape his fate, the witch’s prophecy and Macduff’s sword.
The other jarring part for me was the Porter. Played by Colin Moody, the same actor who played King Duncan, the scene falls immediately following Duncan’s murder by Macbeth and his wife. To have the self-same actor who should be dead and bloodied play the porter, seemed wrong and misjudged. Given the scene’s function not so much as comic-relief, but as the transition into Hell (for Macbeth as much as the others), I couldn’t help but think that it would’ve been better if played by the Witch... Or maybe that was just it: by having ‘Duncan’ play the Porter, he was dragging Macbeth into Hell with him; his death the catalyst for Macbeth’s ultimate downfall…

The decision to physically set the play upon blasted heath afforded the action a non-descript arena to unfold upon, a liminal space neither totally earthbound nor entirely within the spiritworld, but in an inbetween kind of place, a location that was enforced by the o’erhanging firmament, the large black reflective panel that hung above the actors’ heads. Occasionally drawing attention to itself, the mirror showed the heath in a sort of unfocused underwater-like way, the green and desolate nature of it reflected back at itself in a kind of perpetual continuum of existence, “to the last syllable of recorded time.” [V.5.21] It was a place neither inside nor outside, a place neither darkest night nor brightest day, a place that for all intents and purposes could’ve been in a parallel world, a place where such liminal existences were – are – possible. It hinted at the duality or plurality that Peter Evans discussed in the ‘Meet Bell Shakespeare’ session following the play’s conclusion, a theme that runs throughout the play, as it does in Shakespeare’s earlier Hamlet. Along with the simplistic lighting and sound design, it located the action within a claustrophobic world of darkness and unlit spaces (apart from the opening scenes, the play occurs entirely at night), of unseen menace and malevolence, of unbidden sexuality and desires, of the seductive and alluring nature of power and authority, of greed and grief and eventual downfall.

Normally in Macbeth, there are three witches – hag, woman, girl; a trinity of malevolence, not dissimilar to the idea of the three furies. In this production, there was just one, a Witch, played with tremendous allure and presence by Lizzie Schebesta. Hers was the figure we saw at the play’s opening, and she would appear throughout the play as a figure who would prophecy and taunt Macbeth. In the ‘Meet Bell Shakespeare’ session, Peter Evans talked about her being not dissimilar to a femme fatale, in that she was a male construction of what womanness could be, what it could be capable of, of what malevolence could exist. Characterised by her long blonde hair and a thin blue woad-line down her face, from forehead to chin down the middle of her nose and lips, she also appeared as Banquo’s son Fleance, as Macduff’s unnamed son, as Seyton (often mis/conjectured as an analogous entity to Satan) and various messengers; she was, as Peter Evans said, whatever Macbeth needed her to be at that moment, almost a manifestation of his subconscious and desires. (As Fleance and Macduff’s son, she was equally compelling, and it made me wish I had seen her as Rosalind in Sport For Jove’s As You Like It in the Royal Botanic Gardens last March.)
As Witch, her voice was digitally trebled, simultaneously male and female, and her physicality was like that of a dancer, lithe, light and part of the air. Her first physical bodily appearance at the play’s beginning was in a yellow dress made from endless ruffles, reminiscent of the ruff worn around Tudor’s necks, and she seemed to float and creep across the heath, taunting and bewitching Macbeth and Banquo. At the dinner scene, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, she was simultaneously one of the lords and Witch, controlling the ghost like her poppet; as the Macbeth’s shared their moment at the end of III.5, Witch and Banquo shared an intimate moment, their mouths locked in a passionate hellish kiss made all the more harrowing and frightening by the gore running down his body in fathomless incarnadine rivulets.
At the play’s end, following Seyton’s advice in V.5 and Macbeth’s nihilistic ‘Out, out brief candle’ soliloquy, Witch ‘danced’ her way around the rear and side of the stage as Macduff and Macbeth fought. Macbeth’s last line was truncated, initially a disappointing decision, until at the fight’s conclusion – Macduff’s sword raised above Macbeth’s lowered head – Witch had made her way to the very front of the stage. She threw back her head, arms outstretched and cried “Enough!” The theatre was plunged into the total suffocating claustrophobic blackness it began with.

I’m still trying to decide what my overall reaction to opinion of the production was and is. I can’t quite decide whether it ultimately worked or didn’t work; from a theoretical point of view, in terms of the reasoning behind choices and decisions, it was tremendously enjoyable, new ideas and I wonder ifs occurring still, but… I think it belongs to Lizzie Schebesta as Witch, the hinge upon which the whole play hangs, and the most alluring and captivatingly magnificent personification of such a role I have seen. As with most Bell Shakespeare productions in the past few years, it was solid and well-performed, but I couldn’t help but wish it was tighter, faster, and less languid.

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