first night


Rosie Boscawen is lost and won by an innovative but imperfect production of Shakespeare's Scottish Play.


Castle Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth was a visual delight. The set was simple but exciting, with black drapes at the back of the outdoor ‘stage’ that flapped in the wind at tense moments as if on cue, and square black pots extending and confirming the threatening air suggested by the drapes. The costumes, too, were simple yet assertive. Like the set, they were predominantly black, thus welding the characters into their environment and suggesting the evil to follow. The odd splash of colour, like the burgundy in the witches’ costumes (far more suggestive than a stereotypical green) and the tartan sashes worn by Macbeth and his enemies, gave them substance and broke up the monotony of the black without detracting from the sense of foreboding.
The three witches (Rebecca Collingwood, Tash Cowley and Harriet Bradley) were by far the best executed characters. They seemed wholly inhuman, more like ethereal harpies, whose almost constant presence on stage was central in creating the tensions between Macbeth, his wife, his friends, and his enemies. Their simultaneously jagged and languid movements were as evocative as their clicking and hissing; they were evil incarnate. Nevertheless, they were occasionally failed by sloppier performances elsewhere. The scene on the heath in which they tell Macbeth of the threat from Macduff is a case in point: the circle they and the demons made around Macbeth effectively reflected his sense of entrapment and confusion. However, the demons’ crescendo as they ‘err-ed’ a sound (as opposed to hummed a note, which would have made the scene sharper) was out of time with the witches’ screaming, thus diminishing the otherwise chilling effects. It certainly wasn’t the breeze that made me shiver at this point.
This lack of definition extended to several of the characters, Ben Starr’s Macbeth included. Although his soliloquies often started well, with fantastic facial expressions and revealing gestures conveying his emotions and intentions, this complexity of character was absent in his tone and more than once a scene descended into mediocrity. Often, his face looked guilty or angry, passionate or afraid, but his words lacked the same conviction. As a result, Macbeth felt under-developed, and it was not clear whether the directors were aiming to portray a weak man at his manipulative wife’s mercy, or an evil man lusting for power and glory, trying to shun his conscience.
In part, this was due to the remorseless cutting of the script, where the balance between length and depth was not quite found. Though the former was spot on for a production with no interval, had there been an interval the show could have been longer, thereby strengthening characterisation. Lady Macbeth (played by Stevie Martin) suffered more as a result of this, as her disintegration from iron amorality into tormented guilt was dictated and weakened by the cuts. It is a tragedy that details such as the powerful image of shed skin falling from Martin’s hands as she tried to scrub off the imagined blood should be undermined by a lack of coherence in the script. Nevertheless, she was well cast and gave an interesting twist to Lady Macbeth, emphasising her lines unpredictably to convey her power, without ever detracting from the meaning. Then again, aside from a passionate kiss when Macbeth returns home as Thane of Cawdor, there was a disappointing measure of chemistry between her and Starr.
Will Steel as Duncan was suitably naive and trusting. Unfortunately the blocking in the scene when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle was such that audience members towards the sides of the stage could not see the two men. Banquo (Greg Silverman) was likewise impressive, speaking with a thoughtful authority and concern that transcended his death as his ghost walked purposefully around the banquet hall, tormenting his old friend with his unflinching stare of distaste.
This was not a production which lacked direction. Brooke Ciardelli and Oscar Blustin’s work is compelling and innovative while remaining loyal to the text’s austerity. With a little more precision, technical discrepancies could be erased, and an increased decisiveness could bring Macbeth’s character into focus, thus improving what is already a spectacular piece of theatre. I fear, however, that certain directorial choices were too bold, and that some issues of characterisation, such as Lady Macbeth’s, cannot be wholly resolved without the inclusion of more of the text. 

19 June 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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