Tuesday 14 February 2023

Theatre review: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness
The Faction / Wilton's Music Hall & Tour

The Faction are another established Fringe company whose work I've been following for many years - predating this blog, so I'm kind of going on memory to say I think I first encountered them with an all-male Macbeth. Director Mark Leipacher's new take on the Scottish Play goes for gender parity, although that's mainly because it uses only two actors: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness cuts down the cast to just the titular character and his wife, telling the story entirely from their perspective. The latter has been renamed Bellona, after the line early on calling Macbeth "Bellona's bridegroom," so perhaps the idea is to posit her as the more bloodthirsty of the pair, as a literal Roman war deity. Either that or it's a reference to Lidl's own-brand version of Kinder Bueno, given some of the things that happen later on in the show I'm not sure we can discount anything entirely.

Macbeth (Christopher York) writes to his wife Bellona (Sophie Spreadbury) from the battlefield, telling her of a supernatural visitation that predicted he would become King of Scotland. She encourages him to speed up the process, by killing the current King when he visits their castle, and framing the heir for the murder.

The fact that Shakespeare's play features this letter early on defines how Leipacher rewrites his version to begin with, as an epistolary in which Macbeth writes multiple letters to Bellona: Between him narrating the action and her reading out the other characters' responses we get the prophecy from the three witches, and the scenes where his promotions start to prove it true. Like a lot of high concept adaptations it takes a little while to get into, and is stronger once the story actually brings the two characters together - and unlike the original, once they're reunited they barely separate.

Like the recent Lazarus Hamlet this is essentially a retelling of the play rather than a production of Shakespeare's version as such; although this one does still essentially tell the same story, feels like its conceptions was less rushed, and has actors clearly a lot more experienced and confident with Shakespeare's verse. They'd better be, as they have to speak so many characters' worth of it: The new script gives us not only their own dialogue but adapts the text from everyone else, sometimes in its original context, sometimes repurposed - the Porter's speech becomes Bellona bawdily entertaining their guests to distract from Macbeth preparing for the murder. At times it reminded me of a less extreme version of Ben Power's A Tender Thing, which reordered the text of Romeo & Juliet to tell a completely different story.

Leipacher does use captions to move the story along - for example this is how we discover that instead of Macbeth visiting the Witches a second time, they send him the visions of Banquo's legacy in a dream. It's a handy shorthand but not always helpful as they're projected stage right, and as I was sitting quite far audience left the balcony obscured a lot of the captions; never mind the times Spreadbury stands in front of the projector in a big hooped skirt so the projection never reaches the wall in the first place. (The video work in general isn't a highlight; The Faction are usually great at making you not notice they're working on a budget, but reusing the same 30 seconds of animation on a loop for several minutes will quickly dispel the illusion.)

Elsewhere the visuals are characteristically simple - the text suggests the Macbeths may have lost a child, and Sophia Simensky's design places an empty crib prominently on stage, that the actors barely acknowledge: It sets up the couple's motivation for their violence as stemming from a loss they're unable to deal with or discuss. With some of the order of the action moved around, it also explicitly makes Macbeth ordering the murder of Macduff's family the cause of Bellona's descent into madness (like the Yaël Farber production, this has Lady Macbeth herself be the character who tries to warn and save Lady Macduff.)

And then there's Banquo: For the most part, Leipacher's adaptation takes an Ancient Greek theatre approach of reporting the action rather than representing it on stage, so most of the other characters don't appear even symbolically. Except for Macbeth's comrade-in-arms, who is a teddy bear, and not in any euphemistic sense. To represent Banquo's murder, Macbeth rips the stuffing out of a teddy bear; the long line of his descendants is shown with an umbilical cord made up of gutted teddy bears; in the most abrupt lurch into surrreal comedy, Banquo's ghost is a human-sized teddy bear that lumbers at the Macbeths like a particularly expressionistic production of The Winter's Tale. It's a much more teddy bear-heavy show than you might be expecting, is what I'm saying.

It's a tonal shift that the production never quite recovers from, and though there's moments of deliberate levity introduced, I did notice audience members struggling to hold their giggles in even during more serious scenes. As ever with shows that adapt the play so liberally I have my doubts that anybody unfamiliar with Macbeth going in could tell you the story on the way out (the reordering of scenes means Macduff flees to England in the middle of the battle where he's meant to be killing Macbeth) but a decent amount of the risks taken pay off, York and Spreadbury hold the attention throughout, and for any number of reasons, mostly bear-related, it's unlikely to be a production that's easily forgotten.

Macbeth / Partners of Greatness by William Shakespeare is booking until the 18th of February at Wilton's Music Hall; then continuing on tour to Exeter.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.

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