Bella Biddle

William Shakespeare's Macbeth is a truly bizarre play. It’s filled with tremendous obscurity of language and character and inhabits a penumbral realm of which little can be divined from start to finish. It is also spooky. This makes it the perfect Halloween viewing, and so this humble reviewer was certainly excited to see it.

However, I did have a few concerns going in. How, for example, would Banquo’s murder, the battle scenes, or Lady Macbeth’s interactions with her husband be handled while maintaining two metres of distance at all times? I’m glad to say that my concerns were mostly unrealised, and that for the most part this was an assured production which bubbled and simmered with grim dread.

Firstly, the production had a marvellous sense of atmosphere. The stage was bare, except for a minimalist flat which had three entranceways in it and no more. There were also three silhouette screens which were used to great effect with the three witches, as well as Banquo’s ghost and Macbeth striding like Tarquin into Duncan’s chamber. This utilisation of silhouette captured wonderfully the play’s sense of the shrouded unknown and the hidden self.

The sombre score was the perfect evocation of this creeping dread

The sound design around the witches’ appearance, combined with a huge mass of stage fog, manufactured the mystery with aplomb. The sound, lighting and stage effects were used tastefully, mostly resisting the temptation to fall into a Halloween extravaganza lights show. The sombre score, composed by Eve Machin, was the perfect evocation of this creeping dread, mostly serving the action rather than swamping it.

I say mostly; there was an occasional indulgence in excessive spectacle of lighting and sound, but never so much as to veer into schlock. After all, the play is at its best when it engages silence, and lets the actors control the pace and tone of the scene. The soliloquies were wonderful examples of this, suffused as they were with a quiet sense of guilt and horror.

With a play as iconic as this, a review would be incomplete unless I were to comment on whether the cherished roles were done justice. Thankfully, I can confidently tell you that justice was indeed done. William Batty’s Macbeth was for the most part very good indeed. He gave the superb sense of a man crumbling before the audience’s very eyes. His progression from fear, to regret, to suspicion and finally impotent rage at himself and the world was handled with admirable nuance.

She now trembled at the depths of his paranoid malice

Gaia Mondadori was equally assured as Lady Macbeth. In a sense, Lady Macbeth is an even harder character to grade subtly, since she is given less room to do so. But Gaia handled her transition from wilful murderess to fearful, guilt-wracked somnambulant with real skill. When Macbeth warned her to “be innocent of the knowledge”, there was a brilliant sense, despite the limits in proximity, of the dynamic between husband and wife shifting. The wife who had previously condemned the husband for his perceived cowardice now trembled at the depths of his paranoid malice.

If there’s any part of the play which can drag it over into schlock, it’s those troublesome witches. However, Flora Macangus, Sophie Stemmons and Chakira Alin worked remarkably as a collective force of equivocal evil. With their heads down, their faces covering their hair, they weren’t miles away from something out of The Ring. The campy witch material was often dealt with behind the silhouette screens, making something which could have been ridiculous ethereal and menacing.

Bella Biddle

Ben Galvin as Banquo was sufficiently dignified and principled in stark contrast to Macbeth’s spineless scheming. Katrina Rose as Donalbain and Macduff’s son, Fintan Quinn as Malcolm and Anna Freeman as Rosse each made the play’s paranoid menace really stand out. The dual casting of Katrina as Macduff’s son and Donalbain was especially poignant in the final act, when Macbeth sees the ghosts of his victims returned to murder him.

Occasionally some of the verse was elided unfairly in moments of high excitement, horror or action. The words occasionally became a soundscape more than anything, their meaning melting into thin air. But these moments were rare, and not enough to distract from the production’s many positives.

It kept me submerged in smoke, shadow, ambiguity and paranoia

The one thing the production lacked was a little of the text’s grim humour; the Porter’s scene, lent wild drunken life by Ella Burns, could have been played up a little more. There isn’t much humour in Macbeth, and the few scraps of it are desperately needed, no matter how grim. However, it is inexcusable to graft humour onto a moment which has no call for it, and, in a strange twist, there was indeed an attempt to transplant Tarantino-esque comic irony onto the final scene.


Mountain View

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The less said of this the better, for its effect relies on shock. All I can say is that I respect the audacity of it. But audacity has its time and place – it’s audacious, after all, to run off a cliff, but that doesn’t mean one should necessarily do it. Considering that the production got the very final moment so right, I was surprised that they managed to get the preceding moment so wrong.

I’m not opposed to such techniques being used in principle, but to do it quite literally right at the death seemed arbitrary. Outside of this, however nothing was grossly mishandled. The swordplay between Macbeth and Macduff, for example, which I was very concerned about going in, was choreographed very nicely indeed despite social distancing requirements.

Overall, this was an excellent production of Macbeth, especially considering the circumstances. It left your humble reviewer happy at least. The production was filled with confident performances, smartly minimalistic mise-en-scène and evocative music. These factors, working together, kept me submerged in smoke, shadow, ambiguity and paranoia. Just as it should be. Until, that is, I was untimely ripped from it at the very end. But that is to be forgiven, and I would still recommend it for perfect Halloween viewing. Spooky indeed.