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Review: Macbeth

Shakespeare's classic tragedy haunts the BT.

“I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on the other.”

If one were to wrap up Shakespeare’s Macbeth with one word, ‘ambition’ would be a good fit. The Renaissance tragedy, first performed in 1606, centrally explores the potential of such ambition and its incessant menace to turn destructive, as well as the intoxicating nature of power – most pertinent themes far from withered today. 

Accordingly, Tom Runciman’s production was ambitious in its creative aspirations for such a classic masterpiece. This was marked by the very start of the play: as the spectator is just starting to get accustomed to the witchy laughter ringing through the studio, the lying body of one of the sisters comes to life on a leafy backdrop, transposing one from the Scottish highlands to a more modern tropical jungle, an overall innovative rendering of the fantastic element of the drama. 

Throughout, the actors and direction successfully conveyed to their audience some of the play’s apogees and ethos. Harry Berry’s performance of Macbeth’s soliloquies, lent authenticity through facial expressivity and impressive clarity of diction, provided a comprehensive insight into the complexity of the character’s vacillating temper. Lola Beal as Lady Macbeth, then, complemented him by her convincingly embodied charm and strength. The crowning of Macbeth with his Lady laying her head on his shoulder in an intimate embrace effectively synthesised the tenderness of their bond, a motif repeated in a more intense form when Macbeth comes back from murdering Duncan. When Macbeth publicly loses his mind and flings his drinking cup down to ground, her firm orders to the banqueters further bring out her characterisation and the support she lends to her dependent husband. The centrality of their fatal tie is memorably underlined once last as Macbeth in his pain and despair upon her death stamps on his crown, presaging his end. 

It was in thoughtful decisions and details that the sound and lighting supported the performances of the actors. The voices of the witches, first with on stage appearance of one but later without any accompanying physical presence, measured well the ascending madness taking possession of Macbeth. In a similar way, having no lighting when the protagonist initially hears that the woods of Birnam began to move and only a dim glow as he threatens his messenger skillfully highlighted his somber descent into the paranoia of tyranny. 

Just as Macbeth eventually suffers the consequences of his ambition, however, the production at times lacked some of its tragic character and vehemence. For some of the arguably defining instances of the drama could have benefitted from some more intention and intensity, such as the “unsex me now” scene. The moments of brilliant height, too, were occasionally undermined by a rather meagre and sudden build up, perhaps a result of the cutting out of a great deal of the original text. Moreover, even though the jungle setting was coherent on itself, it remained a choice unexplained by the general performance; and the red fairy lights were on the verge of kitsch, almost becoming an understatement of the play’s grave themes. 

Still, putting on Shakespeare’s Macbeth is quite a challenge, and in this light Collarbone production was notable. I left the BT studio with the voices of the witches haunting my head and could not sleep at night, a testimony that this production caught the looming and ever-relevant force of the tragedy. 

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