York Theatre Royal. Tuesday 22nd November, 2016.
This production from Volcano Theatre was hugely ambitious and very modern; as the advertising promised, it was ‘a furious two hander’ and both Mairi Phillips and Alex Harries, playing all roles, were bursting with energy and grit throughout (which must have been gruelling with such a high level of physical demand and no interval). Harries was powerful, raging and charming in turns, while Phillips made an excellent counterpart, rivalling him with her rage, tenderness and grotesqueness. Their performances were the strongest element of this production by far and their command of Shakespeare’s language was excellent; the delivery making the language accessible, and that is a vital strength for any adaptation of Shakespeare’s work. I cannot say, however, that this production was 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 was so much variety in terms of styles and directions (set, acting and sense of narrative) that few of them made a truly powerful impression.
The interpretive dance opener was certainly engaging, but then the actors broke the fourth wall, had a little banter with the audience and then launched back into character; the muddled start left me wondering exactly which style the production would follow. The answer proved to be both and neither- perhaps that was by design and this was intended to be an indiscernable hybrid, or maybe I just missed the keystone to a high brow approach, but I just felt that as a whole, while having a very strong, talented duo leading it, the production lacked clarity and clear direction. Freedom with chronology and selections are all well and good under the tag line ‘Director’s Cut’, but I felt that the selections and the choices for presenting them could have been much more effective.
I was impressed by the ‘poor theatre’ basic wooden furniture and the lack of any real indicator of setting. I was fascinated by the nine strips of fabric dangling from the ceiling and envisioned their use as a possible silks display or some such impressive physical theatre. The blocks were used brilliantly; for comical hiding places, podiums, chairs, surreal, non-specific leaning posts, banquet table etc. The fabric, on the other hand, seemed to serve no real purpose, symbolic or otherwise- they were simply hooked together in threes and then attached to hooks on the set. It’s possible that they were intended to represent Burnam Wood, but not with any real certainty. There were 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 success, for me, was 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.
Equally effective was the visual spectacle of Harries becoming Lady Macbeth’s arms for the infamous ‘Out damn’d spot’ scene; I thoroughly appreciated the symbolism of that loss of control. The use of dolls was hit and miss; as watchman, it worked well; as Banquo, it was slightly comical but a little lack-lustre; as Macduff’s tragic soon-to-be-brutishly-murdered-son, it was greatly effective. Phillips skilfully manipulated the knee-height doll into walking alongside her as they half playfully, half menacingly discussed the laws of treachery, hanging and replacement fathers. The low lighting, the two figures in white and Phillips voicing both mother and child with deft switches between the two, just before their savage murders, was one of the strongest, most sinister moments of the production. A beast-like murderer then enters and suffocates/pummels/bites the small body; creating a genuinely shocking visual before swiftly falling into the land of comedy via the biting and canine noises.
That is, however, the only truly shocking scene in a production which was billed as ‘an erotic and violent theatrical assault on the senses’. The lack of resemblance between the blurb and the production itself was 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. Having looked back over the various advertising (there seem to be three different descriptions available), it seems that the original version of this contemporary take was directed in 1999, and promised a ‘strobe-and-thrash-metal descent into chaos’ among other gripping characteristics, which garnered positive recognition internationally. Now, this rendition certainly had no thrash metal or strobes, whether metaphorical or otherwise; there were a few horns/trumpets and vocal sound effects but nothing more arresting than that. The ‘chaos’ was evident in that the complexity in the approach to direction and design made clarity an issue, which in turn failed to communicate the complexities of the play itself well enough. Therefore, it seems to me that this revival of that original, which achieved great success, has somehow unfortunately fallen flat in the translation from 1999 to 2016.
The comic elements provided some great moments, including slapstick, some ad-libbed profanities and a number of instances where the fourth wall was broken in somewhat of a ‘brain-break’; 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. The sexual moments gained laughs from a decidedly awkward school section of the audience, but excepting the scene between the Macbeths, which was great in demonstrating the disturbing dynamics of their relationship, the other references were oddly placed and genuinely out of place. The business of the man in the box claiming that his erection and promise of a story should gain him entry into the residence, followed by the woman in the box providing orgasm sound effects while her counterpart soliloquised outside of the box, was most likely for shock value and comedy but again, it took away from the dark core promised.
This leads me to the homo-erotic interpretation of Macduff’s murdering of Macbeth; the fact that the final lines between the two were interspersed with passionate kissing, held absolutely no weight with me, and the suggestion of a lustful attachment between the two bitter enemies seemed incongruous. I respect the concept of the ‘Director’s Cut’ but I have to say that if I were to have been unfamiliar or even vaguely familiar with ‘Macbeth’, I believe that I would have been clueless about the true narrative presented. While talented, gripping and versatile in the cast’s delivery of this version, the pace meant that the multi-role switches were not always clear and it would have been very easy to lose the way if an audience member did not have a substantial knowledge of the plot and/or script.
To be clear, I’m not a purist; I’ve seen many modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays and I have found them to be innovative, refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable. Oddsocks and Propeller are two companies that have recently produced brilliant contemporary productions, complete with ad-libs, modernisation and surreal physicality. I will always applaud efforts to engage modern audiences with the bard, without exception, and 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 was 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 wasn’t seen yesterday. I feel the advertising was misleading, at least in part, the confusing combinations of styles, and the questionable interpretations of some of the key scenes, made this quite difficult to keep up with and enjoy. What I did enjoy most were the gripping, passionate performances in some of the more stark scenes; 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’.