Tuesday, 22 January 2019

REVIEW: Birnam Wood - The New Adelphi Theatre, Salford.


A reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or, ‘The Scottish Play’ if you prefer), Birnam Wood was a presentation by a group of second year performance students at the University of Salford. The piece was a multi-layered work which, in addition to performances of scenes from Macbeth (predominantly the murder scenes), expanded upon the underlying themes of the play: it touched upon the persecution of women for witchcraft, the struggle for power, and drew upon elements of the ‘folk-horror’ tradition with the particular focus on the woods which the audience were led into at the start of the performance by cast members in character as the ‘Sisters’ of the North, East, South, or West, as well as the titular wood whose appearance at Dunsinane signalled Macbeth’s end.

Birnam Wood is very much an ensemble piece, not only in terms of performance but also in terms of its theatrical technique: the presentation contains elements of physical theatre and makes use of some fantastic lighting and sound design. The opening of Birnam Wood set the tone superbly, as the audience (in groups) were led around the outskirts of the performance space in a darkened theatre with just torchlight to guide the way and glimpses were caught of performers blowing dust out of their hands, lying contorted in the old roots of a tree, or rising up and hissing like a wild cat, before taking their seats. With the audience in place, low level lighting bathed the theatre as the performers crawled toward the centre where one performer had been swaying, either possessed or blown about by the wind, and joined with him to form the sacred oak at the centre of the wood: some lay on the floor and became the roots of the tree, other stood with arms aloft to represent the branches and swayed. As prologues go, it was evocative and dripped in atmosphere.

From here, more layers in the piece began to unfold. The scenes from Macbeth were framed by scenes of the cast as ‘Sisters’ (even the male cast members introduced themselves as ‘Sister’) at a meeting, discussing what they have researched about women being punished for acts of witchcraft or for just simply being women, and reciting selected quotes from ‘the Scottish play.’ It is also in this framing that Macbeth’s desire for ever-increasing power received its parallel: the Sisters from the East have recently re-joined the Sisterhood but plot to take control of the group. While this plot-line seemed to get muddled in amongst the recreation of Duncan’s murder and Banquo’s assassination, one suspects this was a deliberate attempt to confront the shifting boundaries of art imitating life (or vice versa). The scenes from Macbeth were given a subtle twist which made this blurring of lines more prominent: all the characters were referred to with female pronouns (which made the prophesy of Macbeth only being killed by “a woman not born of a woman”) akin to how all the members of the Sisterhood were female.

In addition to these reworking of the text, the ensemble added physical theatre sections (including Scottish ceilidh dances to celebrate when battles were won, and Macbeth took the throne) and the sound and lighting worked to complement the physical action onstage (this production has clearly drawn upon elements of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in its presentation). Perhaps the most astonishing scene was the one where Lady Macbeth, driven mad by her guilt, dies: the stage was in darkness, save for some artificial candle lights arranged in the centre of the stage, as Lady Macbeth walked around the outskirts of the performance space followed by a cast member shining a torch, made her way to the centre, lay down and another cast member placed their hands around Lady Macbeth’s mouth and neck and ‘snuffed’ her light out, covering her with leaves. A very theatrical sequence and one which lingered long after the play had concluded.

Birnam Wood is very much an ensemble driven piece (with cast members performing roles within roles), but praise must go to the members of the cast who also oversaw the stage management (Zachary Douglas, Sophie Wood, and Jennifer Tovey) who ensured that the transitions between scenes were flawless. A lot of thought had been given to the technical aspects of the production and it paid off handsomely. To nit-pick somewhat, some performers needed to project a bit more (especially during scenes when they had to fight against live and pre-recorded sound) and with the performance taking place in the round the need to try and ensure all audience members can hear lines being delivered is more pressing, but this is a very minor criticism in what was a very bold theatrical statement.

All involved in Birnam Wood have much to be proud of: the technical and theatrical aspects were fantastic and the various elements which ran through the piece produced a suitable heady brew to think about and it all came together to create a fascinating piece of theatre.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 21/1/19

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