We are now well and truly in spooky season and, if plenty of Doctor Who stories are to be believed, there is nowhere spookier than in the darkness of your own home… This works in Big Telly Theatre’s favour, then, as they continue their foray into online theatre during this continued period of uncertainty; their latest production is a short & snappy take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth – an understandable choice for this time of year, not to mention all the political connotations the play can offer in a climate such as ours. This is emphasised by director & adaptor Zoe Seaton’s choice to take the ‘ghost-light’ as her inspiration for this new version, suggesting all the magic emanates from the theatre and having the witches appear in various theatrical guises to manage the events of the play.
(Potential spoilers for the production lie ahead – so please come back and read this later if you want to get the full effect of the show.)
For me, the ideas are a little hit-and-miss. The evening begins with the now familiar sight of statesmen standing at podiums giving an address to the nation, though this daily briefing is to help us guard against witches – quite neat then to reveal that the three people we have just been listening to appear to be witches themselves (I won’t bore you with another Doctor Who reference here). However, this ends up as a standalone piece of satire that doesn’t seem to link to anything else in the play; it’s thought-provoking (especially given the kind of leaders we currently have to endure) but I would have liked it to run through the whole production in some way so it doesn’t feel quite so shoe-horned in. The mildly interactive elements, too, I’m not convinced about – it’s a clever use of technology to bring various actors & audience members together on the same screen (at the coronation, banquet & theatre), but maybe a bit too distracting for what it is.
The music is jarringly jaunty at certain points (one example is a big band/1920s style We Are The Champions) and becomes too frequent; in the full play, the Porter scene is often used to lighten the mood following Duncan’s murder – the key thing is that this only happens once, before heading back into thriller territory again. With a production as compact as this one there is very little time for any tension to build up as it is, let alone when there are multiple random breaks. I’m not always a fan of the Porter scene, but prior to the show starting I had expected that to be the interactive part of the evening (the better ones I’ve seen have had the Porter engaging with the audience) – perhaps the unpredictable nature of audience responses dissuaded Seaton from including it.
The theatre magic theme is most effective when Macbeth returns to see the Wyrd Sisters – this time appearing as stage managers, ushers & performers to answer his questions, conjuring up their prophecies using stagecraft. Another really smart way of moving the story on with limited time is the cold-blooded murder of Macduff’s family; the scenes are squished together as Lady Macduff watches a news report showing Macduff and Malcolm joining forces, then she & the children are killed on Macbeth’s orders, before Macduff is informed of the attack that has taken place in his absence. This is probably where the greatest sense of urgency can be felt in the entire production – much of the rest does feel too rushed.
For me, the standout performances come from Dharmesh Patel (as Banquo and Witch) and Nicky Harley (as Lady Macbeth). Though there isn’t a huge amount of time to see Lady M’s descent into madness as guilt catches up with her, Harley makes the best of the time she has and takes her character on quite the journey from confident & ambitious to broken & suicidal. Patel, too, is fantastic as the level-headed Banquo (engineering a brilliant murder scene outside) and shows his versatility as one of the mysterious three witches.
My verdict? Some good ideas, though the short running time means things often feel quite rushed – clever use of the technology makes for an intriguing watch.
Macbeth headlined Belfast International Arts Festival from 14-17 October 2020, and will run as a co-production with Creation Theatre from 21-31 October 2020. Tickets are available online – one ticket per device.