Macbeth, Lost Theatre, London

Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is actor-centred and is often best presented stripped of all distractions, says Peter J. Smith

February 19, 2015

Andrew Venning in the title role in David Shopland’s Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Directed and designed by David Shopland
Lost Theatre, London, until 1 March 2015
Rondo Theatre, Bath, 4-7 March 2015

If Hamlet is a universe expanding outwards in complexity and range, Macbeth is a black hole, drawing everything to its brutal centre

When today’s Shakespeareans drop their trousers and wave their arses at you, just look the other way.” In Directing: A Miscellany (2014), Simon Usher insists on stripping Shakespeare of gimmickry and clutter. For him, the plays are best served by trimming theatrical realisation of all excrescence, all potential irrelevance.

Greg Doran’s current production of Henry IV Part II for the Royal Shakespeare Company offers an instance of just such irrelevance – and, it so happens, one with a naked arse. One of the tavern scenes has the bizarrely explosive Pistol (Antony Byrne) enter from a trapdoor in a puff of smoke like Ali Baba in a pantomime. With sticky-up hair, farcical make-up and a tendency to drop his trousers and moon at the audience, he was as unwelcome in the production as he was in Eastcheap. At one point he climbed on to a table and lunged himself at the suspended light fitting, swung about for a bit and then returned to earth – a climbdown in both senses. Falstaff’s poignant line, “Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me remember mine end” went for very little in the wake of such hubbub. Sometimes, as Usher suggests, more really is less.

On the other hand, as the paintings of Mark Rothko, the prose of Ernest Hemingway or the distilled lyrics of Mahendra Solanki demonstrate, less can actually be a whole lot more. In theatrical terms, one thinks of the minimalism of Samuel Beckett, so it is unsurprising to find another of Usher’s aphorisms claiming that “In one respect Hamlet and Waiting for Godot are the only plays we need: they contain all the others.” While Hamlet offers us an exploration of the densely packed inner life that Usher identifies at one end of his dramatic continuum, it is Macbeth that best serves his fondness for unadorned theatre, the Shakespearean answer, as it were, to Godot.

Shakespeare’s second shortest play (after The Comedy of Errors), lacking subplot or narrative complexity, Macbeth is the most densely packed work in the canon. If Hamlet is a universe expanding outwards in complexity and range, its multitudinous interpretations conflicting and undermining each other, Macbeth is a black hole, drawing everything to its ineluctable and brutal centre. In the middle of the 18th century, Thomas Davies registered the degree to which the playwright had written, in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, a pair of roles without a safety net. Of David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard performing the scene just after the murder, Davies writes: “The poet here gives only an outline to the consummate actor – I have done the deed! – Didst thou not hear a noise? – When? – Did you not speak? – The dark colouring, given by the actor to these abrupt speeches, makes the scene awful and tremendous to the auditors! The wonderful expression of heartfelt horror, which Garrick felt when he shewed his bloody hands, can only be conceived and described by those who saw him!”

Macbeth is supremely actor-centred. Imaginative life, horror, tension are delivered not by grandiose setting or baroque concepts but solely by the actor. When Mark Rylance, in 1995, set the play in a Hare Krishna encampment inspired by the Waco siege, the reviewers were justly without mercy. I still remember the hostile incredulity that greeted Jane Horrocks pissing herself on stage.

It is Macbeth’s tunnel vision that explains why some of the most successful productions are minimally staged. The infamous Trevor Nunn, black-box Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976, took place within a chalk circle, its focus intensified to the point of claustrophobia. One of the most terrifying productions I have seen in the past decade was staged in a hall, under full house-lights with no set and a cast of five. It lasted about 90 minutes. Directed by Jaq Bessell, the production extracted the play’s obsession with evil and staged that – and only that. I’ll never forget Jan Knightley’s Macbeth cuddling Macduff’s baby, cajoling it and shhh-ing it before he slammed it against a door frame. The audience’s gasp was completely spontaneous and sincere.

Macbeth Lost Theatre

David Shopland’s programme note suggests that he is after a similar ascetic effect: “this production employs simplicity and starkness to strip the story back to the text.” His engaging production did manage to tease out the play’s brutish desolation, and there were some sequences of intense clarity. While the company’s inexperience was occasionally glaring, one senses that, given time, this might grow into a challenging and compelling ensemble – definitely a company to keep an eye on.

The play was staged in modern dress, neutral in colour against three open doorways – one on each side upstage and a third above – while the set comprised a dozen red shoeboxes and a wallpaper table. These were stacked by a trio of giggling childish witches (Evangeline Beaven, Caroline Charles and Nathalie Codsi) into the various configurations required – a long table surrounded by stools for the banquet scene or boxes piled in three columns to form the seat and two arms of the royal throne with the upended table as its towering back. Elsewhere the boxes were grouped in a circle to outline the circumference of the hellish cauldron or in a tight rectangle to form the basin in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands in vain. While the variety of settings achieved from this collection of boxes was inventive and impressive, too much time was spent between scenes setting up the next one, and the obvious metaphor of the chortling witches doubling as stage managers – since it was they who were driving the shape of both the performance space and Macbeth’s fortunes – quickly became tired.

The production initially made more of the witches as they manoeuvred Duncan (Jonathan Curry) and Malcolm (Stu Mansell) like lifeless mannequins into position for them to receive the news of the battle from the Bloody Sergeant. Their sudden animation signalled the supernatural governance of Scotland – a feature underlined by the inversions of the natural order in the shocking account of Duncan’s horses eating each other. This mannequin sequence was repeated following the interval, perhaps to indicate the iteration of the story – remember the witches do not merely meet but “meet again”. These two moments of animation aside, the witches interacted with, as much as governed, the world of the play.

Andrew Venning and Carmella Brown took the two leading roles. Venning was a pensive and anxious Macbeth, teasing out his resolve during his thoughtful soliloquies as at “To be thus is nothing/But to be safely thus.” He was generally calm and reflective, but when he did snap it was with sudden fervour and a quite unpredictable vehemence, as when he hurled the line: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” Brown cajoled him rather than dominated him. Her “Infirm of purpose!/Give me the daggers” was soothing rather than reproachful, in the manner of a mother’s “there, there” to a child who has just fallen in the playground.

Macbeth’s meeting with Macduff concluded with a suicidal embrace. He remained slumped on his throne as the triumphant Macduff presented Malcolm with the “usurper’s cursed head” – in a red shoebox. After the stage emptied, Fleance sneaked onstage by torchlight and crept towards the box, removed its lid and lifted out a paper crown. It made a fitting instance of the intensity of poor theatre and a telling example of Usher’s first principle.

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