Macbeth: Ambitious, but like Macbeth, ‘O’erleaps itself’

York Theatre Royal. Tuesday 22nd November, 2016.

⭐️⭐️

This production from Volcano Theatre is hugely ambitious and very modern; as the advertising promised, it’s ‘a furious two hander’ and both Mairi Phillips and Alex Harries, playing all roles, are bursting with energy and grit throughout (which must be utterly gruelling with such a high level of physical demand and no interval). Harries is powerful, raging and charming in turns, while Phillips makes an excellent counterpart, rivalling him with her rage, tenderness and grotesqueness. Their performances are the strongest element of this production by far and their command of Shakespeare’s language is excellent. I cannot say, however, that this production is without flaws.

Great pains were evidently taken to modernise the play, to make it engaging for younger audiences, and to elevate selected moments by approaching them in outlandish ways. I will never fault of production for working to keep Shakespeare relevant and accessible, but sometimes productions do of course fall short. The main flaw was that there is so much variety in terms of styles and directions (set, acting and sense of narrative) that few of them made a truly powerful impression.

IMG_4872.PNGThe interpretive dance opener is certainly engaging, but then the actors break the fourth wall, have a little banter with the audience and then launch back into character; such a muddled start left me wondering exactly which style the production would follow. The answer proved to be both and neither. Perhaps that is by design, and this was intended to be an indiscernible hybrid, or maybe I just missed the keystone to a high brow approach, but as a whole, while having a very strong, talented duo leading it, the production lacks clarity and clear direction. Freedom with chronology and selections are all well and good under the tag line ‘Director’s Cut’, but the selections and the choices for presenting them could be much more effective.

There are a number of clever design tricks though, such as casting the audience as the non-verbal witches, the use of dolls as additional characters, and having lines for the audience members cajoled onto the stage for the banquet scene; Lady Macbeth simply cueing the civilians with ‘speak, 1!’ One particular point of success is the chilling final scream of Lady Macbeth, which provides the gust with which the candle she holds is outed- a beautifully executed moment, and very effective.

IMG_4871.PNGEqually effective is the visual spectacle of Harries becoming Lady Macbeth’s arms for the infamous ‘Out damn’d spot’ scene; an excellent moment symbolism of that loss of control. The use of dolls is hit and miss; as watchman, it works well; as Banquo, it’s slightly comical but a little lack-lustre; as Macduff’s tragic soon-to-be-brutishly-murdered-son, it’s greatly effective.

There is, however, only only one truly shocking scene in a production which is billed as ‘an erotic and violent theatrical assault on the senses’. The lack of resemblance between the blurb and the production itself is something I found to be deeply disappointing: I arrived convinced that I would finally see a dark, Artaudian masterpiece, but the promised ‘assault on the senses’ never came to fruition.

IMG_4873.PNGThe comic elements provide some great moments, including slapstick, some ad-libbed profanities and a number of instances where the actors shook off the roles momentarily to bicker- ‘don’t tell me what to do’- a certain laugh but not exactly lending itself to displaying the ‘intense’ and ‘stripped bare’ core of Macbeth with any real gravity. Excepting the scene between the Macbeths, which is great in demonstrating the disturbing dynamics of their relationship, the other references are oddly placed and genuinely out of place. This leads me to the bizarre homo-erotic interpretation of Macduff’s murdering of Macbeth. The fact that the final lines between the two are interspersed with passionate kissing, holds absolutely no weight with me, and the suggestion of a lustful attachment between the two bitter enemies seems incongruous.

To be clear, I’m not a purist. I applaud this production and company for taking on a play as complex as ‘Macbeth’, tackling it as a two-person extravaganza, and evidently working hard to make it as ground-breakingly different and engaging as possible. It’s certainly different, and the talented cast put the ‘furious’, ‘extreme’ and ‘claustrophobic’ descriptors centre stage, but I maintain that too much of the promised glory doesn’t materialise. I can’t fault the actors, I can’t fault the ambition when it comes to modernisation, but in this case, like the protagonist, the production appears to have ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’.

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