Brief candles: Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth

…out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
King Lear, I.4.197

Macbeth is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, not to mention one of the shortest; it is also his most claustrophobic and (literally) darkest. Yet despite its immense popularity, there is a robustness to it that withstands this very proliferation – no matter how many cuts or omissions are made to it, the inherent thrilling downward spiral of it still stands intact, as Macbeth drags everyone down with him, fighting all the while. Presented here by Bell Shakespeare for a schools audience, this Macbeth is characterised by a bleakness and minimalism, a blasted heath signifying nothing, and is as malleable and as changeable as Macbeth’s moods and visions. Emerging out of the darkness of the bare stage, Shakespeare’s words bounce out at you in a tale “full of sound and fury.”

On the ever-inventive Mel Page’s set (or lack-thereof) – a blank slate-like bare-bones reduction of anything that could clutter the storytelling – the physical and imaginary nature of Macbeth’s turmoil unfolded as if in a kind of waking dream. Above the stage, a bank of sixty-five lightbulbs flickered and flashed at intervals, in patterns and chaos, a haunting and poetic evocation of that ever-so-brief candle. Around the edges of the stage stand metal stools, a table, racks of clothes to facilitate costume changes (Page, again), mops and swords, all ingredients to help shape this dark and lonely tragedy. Nicholas Rayment’s lighting is warm, clever and poetic, utilising the bank of lightbulbs in simple and ingenious ways (not least when the Weird Sisters appear, and the dagger scene), as well as in great slabs of light, as when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, and when Malcolm enters for the first time. While well-lit, it is mostly in pools, clearly defined circles or planes of light, darkness encroaching at the edges, the nightmare never too far away. Nate Edmondson’s score and sound design, while ever-present and almost through-composed, is a beautiful and often haunting counterpoint to the sometimes nihilistic words and actions on-stage. From the opening judders and whisperings which signal the Weird Sisters’ entrance, to the anthemic entrance of Malcolm and the halcyon final coronation scene, this is a Macbeth composed of many beautiful images and moments, a clever poetry in its execution, albeit one which is marred by a condensing and a sometimes unclear style of storytelling.
Directed by James Evans, Bell Shakespeare’s Associate Artist and Resident Artist in Education, this Macbeth is performed by the 2014 Players, Bell Shakespeare’s resident education troupe, and doubling (or tripling) is utilised to cover the necessary roles as required. While the text is clear-enough and well-edited with regards to structure and maintaining the overall thrust of the play’s downward spiral, the effect the doubling has on the production almost reverses the clarity of the text and the poetry of the stage design. Speeches are unclearly addressed to characters, lines are rushed or delivered in ways which mars their meaning, while at other times it is unclear who exactly is who or what is going on, and I don’t quite know whether it is the fault of any one in particular or just something that has happened as a result of the directorial approach and playing style. Evans has also used a rudimentary application of Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics in his staging, but it feels unnecessary, something that’s been introduced to delineate between the boundaries of the set and the central playing space, as well as in shifts between a character’s thoughts in any one scene or phrase or beat.
Performance-wise, The Players are all strong, though more could have perhaps been done to differentiate the actors’ multiple characters, or between characters in group scenes. Macbeth is, for the most part, charismatic and clear, while Lady Macbeth seems perhaps too giddy or gigglish at first but grows into her character. Malcolm, while characterised at first as a loutish youth who likes to drink, becomes the golden prince of Shakespeare’s conclusion and seems a cousin to Matthew Moore’s Prince Hal in last year’s Henry 4. Macduff tends at times to declaim and barnstorm, though Duncan is genial and generous enough. Banquo seems more like a hipster than a father, though his death-scene is gruesome; his scenes with Fleance are warm, if slightly distant. Ross and Lennox, the noblewomen-cum-messengers, are stately enough and, as doubled by two of the Weird Sisters, bring a sense of prophecy and prescient fore-sight to their lines. The Weird Sisters, dressed alternately in black shimmering dresses and mackintoshes, wear animal masks for their prophecies, and their apparition scene is perhaps one of the spookiest and most theatrical I’ve seen yet.
It’s a curious production because, like Peter Evans’ work for Bell Shakespeare, the ideas and intellectual aspect – the technical side – to this Macbeth are brilliant. It’s just the execution and implementation of those ideas which suffers; it feels like a production for people who know the play well which, for a school-audience, is what you’d hope to achieve, but for a member of the public (albeit one reasonably well-versed in Shakespeare) we spend part of the time playing catch-up, trying to work out who is meant to be who before we’re on to the next scene. That said, there is an undeniable charm here in the look and stagecraft of this production, as well as a healthy dose of heart and poetry, with just a dash of chutzpah. There is much to like in Evans’ poetry, but part of me just wished there had been a little less barnstorming, a bit more focus and clarity; a little bit more strange magic.

Theatre playlist: 40. The Time of Angels, Murray Gold

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