Macbeth, The Lowry, Salford, 17 November 2016
Splendid Productions have pared back “The Scottish Play” to an hour in length, and a cast of three, for their visit to the intimate studio setting at The Lowry. The production is squarely aimed at schools, and much of the current tour involves performances with accompanyingworkshops for GCSE students. The audience tonight is a similar demographic.
The educational approach creates some constraints. The production retains the most memorable dramatic set pieces, and the keynote speeches and soliloquies. But it also means that the play becomes a series of headlines with subtitles, carefully broken down into manageable chunks, and clearly defined themes. These are carefully signalled by the use of (invisible) placards, and deliberate “Expositions” of the key developments of the plot. The context is set with a preamble on choosing a leader, and there is a running commentary on the nature of leadership, in a series of asides.
The plotline of the play is followed faithfully, as Macbeth’s ambition, fuelled by the witches’ prophecies and his wife’s desires, propel the once-loyal general on a trajectory of regicide, tyranny, despair, and death. Economy dictates that the focus of the production is not dissipated by the acidic comic relief of the Porter scene, or Malcolm’s laborious testing of MacDuff’s morality and loyalty. But the essence of the play is sustained, and most of Shakespeare’s best lines are faithfully preserved and handled with due reverence. Reverence is laid aside for song treatments of some episodes including Banquo’s murder, and the slaughter of the MacDuff household to the very catchy refrain: “I’m Lady MacDuff/And I’ve had enough…” And while the form may break with the original, it still manages to capture the essence of the scene, and the piteous nature of the event.
The three actors, Scott Smith, Genevieve Say and Mark Beirne, provide an energetic ensemble performance, smoothly transitioning between roles and engaging imaginatively with the audience to conscript occasional additional players, and to involve them in the action. (The entire auditorium are commissioned to serve as trees for the march by Burnham Wood on Dunsinane.) Costumes are simple, neutral mumming outfits, flexible enough to fit all purposes; the stage is naked, but the cast does not restrict themselves to the stage level, taking the action into the auditorium to expand the playing area when necessary. The house lights are kept up throughout to affect this, and also help to de-mystify the dramatic process.
It would be easy to dismiss this production as little more than an entertaining crib for students cramming the play for exams, obviating the need to sit through the entire tragedy, while retaining the highlights. If that were all it had to commend it, it would do poor service to the play, its author, or the audience. Instead, it must be accepted as something other than Macbeth the play. Different, but still worthy in its own right, and deserving respect as a well-crafted, enterprising, imaginative, and highly enjoyable piece of theatre. If it helps to secure a few good exam grades, so much to the good. If it fires the theatrical imagination of some young souls to further explore the plays of Will Shakespeare, so much the better.
I like Shakespeare. I also particularly like Macbeth. I have seen numerous versions of the play, some excellent, some less so, but all featuring significant sized casts, sets, props and all the usual “gumpf” that goes with a production. So, to say that I was a little dubious about a three handed production of this play to be performed in one act inside an hour.
Upon arriving in the space, it was clear we were not going to be treated to sets or props – the stage was a bare black box with the main staging area marked by a semi-circle of rope. The cast were already on stage, interacting with the audience and “appointing” (and rapidly dispatching) leaders. Good fun, but a slightly odd introduction to a tragedy.
The three cast members (two male, one female) wore white(ish). Costume was present but nondescript. No period, no location, no idea how that would fit into the production. Oh, and they all had hats. Odd hats.
Come 8pm, and the production proper started and immediately it became clear that this would be a very different production than any that I have seen before. This was, without any doubt, a masterclass in performance from start to finish. Scenes (and dialogue) from the Bards work was interspersed with self accompanied songs and presented almost in a storyboard format with cut scenes explaining where we were headed next (making use of interesting invisible placards). Differences in character were helped either by removal of the aforementioned hats, by the addition of a red sash (the only bit of colour that appeared throughout the piece) or by physical performance – adopting posture, stance and adding accent to distinguish between, for example, Banquo and Duncan.
The physicality of the performance was exceptionally strong, particularly the fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff. Voices were clear and strong, both when in Shakespearean mode and when dropping back into more common conversational English. The cast used the space well, slipping into the rope marked stage or into the audience at ease. The ability, in a simple way, to produce emotion was strong – particularly so in the song of Lady Macduff which was chilling at the end.
A word on the performers, Scott Smith, Genevieve Say and Mark Beirne. You couldn’t separate these three in terms of strength of performance. They were all equally talented and delivered phenomenal performances. Smith carried the burden of Macbeth – something that he applied himself to throughout. The challenge of both ladies was admirably met by Say, again particularly poignant was her Lady Macduff at the point the Macduff stronghold was surprised. Beirne covered the majority of the other roles, particularly those who ended up dead, and again delivered assured performances throughout.
The production was simply staged and directed by Kerry Frampton and Matt Wilde who clearly relied on the phenomenal artistry of their actors to deliver the production without the need for technical gimmickry to deliver the story.
A thoroughly enjoyable hour of top class theatre that I can strongly recommend to anyone who can catch it on its tour.