Tragedy comes to the Globe, in the form of the Scottish Play. Directed by Iqbal Khan, Macbeth is probably one of Shakespeare’s most famous stories, inspired by his reading of the Holinshed’s Chronicles (stories of British history).
Macbeth is a loyal thane & soldier for Duncan, King of Scotland, until he encounters the weïrd sisters who make prophecies about his future. When the first (that he will be made Thane of Cawdor) comes true, he starts to dream of enabling the second: that he will become king. Pushed on by his wife, he murders Duncan in his sleep when he stays as a guest – when Duncan’s eldest son (& named heir), Malcolm, flees Macbeth is proclaimed king. His hands get ever bloodier as he seeks to escape suspicion & retain his crown – Lady Macbeth, too, is wracked with guilt that eventually drives her mad. Macbeth is defeated in battle by Malcolm’s borrowed English troops and killed by Macduff (Thane of Fife), taking revenge for the murder of his wife & children.
Khan’s production is, in some ways, the most traditional of the season in its approach, though that’s not to say it does everything ‘by the book’. However, in his attempt to put his own stamp on it Khan has made the whole thing quite confusing.
For a start, it is unclear when (or even where) it is set. Some of the costumes & props suggest it is historical, whereas others are far too modern for that – for example, Lady Macbeth brandishing a cigarette lighter. There is barely a Scottish accent in the house, so is it still actually happening in Scotland? The text remains the same, but nearly everyone sounds English. A clearly defined setting shouldn’t be too difficult to decide upon; this was one of my many issues with last year’s Hamlet at the Barbican.
There is a significant amount of cast doubling, particularly among the female members of the company. It is occasionally confusing who they are playing, as nothing much is mentioned in the text and the costume changes aren’t obvious enough – a good example of this is Kerry Gooderson, who plays (amongst others) both Donalbain (Duncan’s youngest son) & Fleance (Banquo’s son). Their costumes presumably are different, but not so much that it sticks in the memory, and Gooderson isn’t even given a wig or anything to distinguish the difference more effectively.
Famously there are three witches in the play. Not in this production! There are suddenly four of them. Yet the line “when shall we three meet again” is retained! It makes absolutely no sense. They spend much of their time waving dismembered body parts around (arms, legs, extra heads), though from up close they don’t look hugely realistic. The ethereal voice of Melanie Pappenheim singing their lines is an interesting move, and certainly does something to make proceedings a bit spookier.
Khan has also introduced as child to proceedings. Not given any lines, he is never actually acknowledged as being the Macbeths’ son, however it is heavily implied that he is. The idea is to make the couple more like average people – often it is thought that they have suffered the loss of a child, which clearly has an effect on their mental states and could be seen almost to excuse their actions. In presenting them as a family it makes their actions more barbaric and any ounce of sympathy you may otherwise have felt for them is taken away. It is an interesting idea, however at times his presence is a bit distracting.
A surprising amount of comedy has been found in the text, which is welcome some of the time to alleviate the darkness, but occasionally detracts from the overall seriousness of the subject matter. Also, chucking water over a portion of the groundlings is hugely distracting when you’re trying to concentrate on what is being said. This sort of thing is fine in comedies, when you’re laughing anyway, but really takes you out of the moment if you’re trying to focus on an important speech. And this happens twice, in the same place!
The use of music is the best thing about this production. A small group of musicians produce haunting melodies that maintain the tragic backdrop to the play. Jocelyn Pook’s compositions could not be more suited to this tragedy.
As far as acting goes it is a bit of a mixed bag.
Ray Fearon excels at some points in the title role, creating moments of great poignancy as well as embodying a soldier’s aggression. However, in his quest to enunciate every last word his delivery occasionally becomes a bit stilted – and it means there is an awful lot of spitting, over both fellow actors & audience members. Tara Fitzgerald, on the whole, is an excellent Lady Macbeth; a twisted but ultimately tragic figure. The emphasis in her delivery is compelling at first, though it does get a bit monotonous by the end.
The two standout performances, however, come from Freddie Stewart (Malcolm) & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Macduff). This is particularly highlighted in their scene together in England, both very natural in their roles – finding comedy & gravity with ease in their dialogue. Fortune-Lloyd has a charismatic presence; his character’s integrity is highly believable and you do find yourself willing him on to defeat the morally bankrupt Macbeth.
My verdict? A confusing attempt at a well-known story – some stunning visuals and interesting moments, but it has the potential to be so much more.
Macbeth runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 1 October 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.