Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Theatre review: Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe)

Like many an actor, Eve Best wants to branch out into directing, and following her Beatrice at Shakespeare's Globe she'd had discussions about making that the venue for her directing debut. Apparently she'd imagined being given one of the comedies so when Dominic Dromgoole offered her Macbeth it was a surprise, but one she's embraced - although her interest in staging something lighter in the space is always apparent. It's only three years since the Globe staged Macbeth, in Lucy Bailey's production that embraced the play's dark magic to the point of revealing it as a Faustian story, complete with design straight out of Dante's Inferno. With that in recent memory it's wise of Best to go in a different direction, and she certainly does, making this one of the lightest takes on the play you're likely to see in a long while, embracing the surprisingly frequent opportunities for comedy, and she succeeds just about as well as it's possible to with this interpretation - though it's one with inherent problems.

Macbeth (Joseph Millson) is the fiercest general in King Duncan's (Gawn Grainger) army. Following a victory in battle, he and his friend Banquo (Billy Boyd) meet a trio of witches who predict he will succeed Duncan to the throne of Scotland. Egged on by his wife, he decides to give the prophecies a helping hand by dispatching the king when he visits his castle.


This is one of the Globe's "Renaissance costumes and staging" productions, which I always find lends a bit of a generic look to the costume design, and apart from a distressed wooden wall covering the back of the stage and musicians' balcony designer Mike Britton hasn't had much opportunity to stamp an identity onto it. This may be part of what makes this a Macbeth whose dark magic is never really played up, the Weird Sisters' (Moyo Akandé, Jess Murphy, Cat Simmons) pronouncements not necessarily gospel but just a spur for Macbeth's own actions. In this context I'm not sure I agree with the decision to have Merry or Pippin (I don't know, I stopped paying attention about an hour into the first film) return as Banquo's ghost at the feast, having an invisible ghost might have fitted better as a manifestation of Macbeth's guilt.


The surprising theme Best does bring to the production is a great deal of comedy, giving the lie to the idea that the play is humourless outside of the Porter's (Bette Bourne) scene. Indeed, from the witches using the blood from the Pilot's thumb as lipstick, to Harry Hepple's Lennox struggling to make small-talk with Macbeth, there's an awful lot of good laughs, Best uncovering both dark comedy and a much sillier brand in the text. It's a risky strategy - it avoids the possibility of the play's seriousness becoming funny unintentionally, and it keeps a brisk energy to the production, but it does make it hard for the actors to believably switch from this to the play's dark heart and provide any kind of emotional response.


It took me a while to warm to Fit Dad in the title role, particularly to his verse-speaking, but his performance builds up well and there's no question he delivers a brutally nihilistic "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech that's one of the most devastating I've heard. His is a reactive Macbeth, at least at the start buffeted by war, the Weird Sisters and his wife (Samantha Spiro) and although his individual actions spiral into ever more violence, there's not a great sense of the bloody tyrant who's crippling the whole country.


Given the sterling work he's put in at the Globe in the past, you'd think it was about time Big Favourite Round These Parts Philip Cumbus was getting leads there, so it was a bit disappointing to see him cast only as Malcolm. Although perhaps having acted opposite his Claudio two years ago Best was counting on his ability to shine new light on hard-to-like characters. And this he does, adding to the comedy early on with a prissy, white face-painted Malcolm who perhaps has a touch of Prince Hal about him, covering his strength under a show of decadence. It leads to an interesting bit of staging as it seems Duncan is about to declare Macbeth his heir, only to walk past him to his apparently foolish son, and this provides a nice touch of motivation for Macbeth to take matters into his own hands. And although the scene of Macduff (Stuart Bowman) visiting Malcolm in England is never going to be a highlight, Cumbus goes a long way to making it make sense.


One thing you can't accuse Best of is a lack of confidence, she's given her debut as a director an angle most people don't find in the play, although she has sacrificed a lot of subtlety in the process (the Macbeths' lost child doesn't really register for example.) There's also a lack of atmosphere, although Olly Fox's spectacular percussive music corrects this every time it booms in. I certainly hope she gets to return here as a director (and as an actor, but that goes without saying whatever the venue) and gets her wish for a comedy to play with, as her experience acting at the Globe shines through in her understanding of the space's unique dynamic.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 13th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

6 comments:

  1. With the lost child angle - I took something completely from this production - the feel that Lady Macbeth had children with a previous dead husband and Macbeth had failed to give her more. Making it a miserable stain on his manhood. Which apparently matches history - not sure how they managed it, but it hit me with a ton of bricks when I watched this.

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    1. I think Gruach having been married/had kids before showed up in David Greig's Dunsinane as well. Interesting that you got this particular angle from the Globe's production though, for me it was more that any real look into the inconsistencies about their child wasn't covered much.

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  2. Pippin. Hence the crossover nerd humour delight of there being TWO Pippins in this production!

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    1. I know (actually I think it was me who pointed it out) but I just couldn't resist a dig at Lord of the Rings.

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    2. Always a bit of a "lord what have I become?" moment when people say they're excited to see Pippin in Macbeth and it takes me a good half hour to realise they *don't* mean the Hepple.

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    3. I fail to see how you're the one who's got a problem in this scenario.

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