Thursday, 19 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: MacBeth - The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

“Dare to be different”

I am a huge fan of this quote and try and follow this thinking myself. I don’t like to fit into a square box, or follow the crowd, and I also like to think a little ‘out of that un-square box’. Well for me it is exactly what this production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester encompasses. Completely different from any other Macbeth I have ever seen. Now is this a good or a bad thing? I possibly need a few more days to digest this lengthy production I witnessed last night and I am still trying to break everything down in my head. So for now, please forgive me but I’m teetering on the fence and wondering myself if this was just too different or indeed whether it was a bold, brave and worthwhile decision to give it’s audience an overtly modern, in your face loud, aggressive and almost circus like take on The Bard’s 400 plus year old words.

This Royal Exchange Production is Directed by Christopher Haydon (who I had the pleasure of chatting with after the performance). I was very interested in his motives in casting a woman, namely Lucy Ellinson as the lead Macbeth and he explained it was a very personal decision. Haydon had worked with Ellinson before and had thought she’d make a superb Lady Macbeth. Then at some point turned this on it’s head and realised in actual fact she be a perfect Macbeth. Directors often work repeatedly with people they know very well, they understand their quirks, their personalities, perhaps even their hidden vulnerabilities. I appreciated his honesty and simple reasoning to my question and to me it made sense.

To quote from Bridget Escolme, who is Dramaturg on this production, she says: “In the long history of casting women in male Shakespearean roles, there are remarkably few Macbeths. There have been a number of all women versions, but the production you are seeing here at the Royal Exchange may be the first mixed-gender professional production of Macbeth to cast a woman in the lead. What happens to the play when we cast two very different leaders - Duncan and Macbeth - as women, in a world that otherwise still seems to be male-dominated?” Food for thought indeed from Escolme there.

We are seated ‘in the round’ at the Exchange which is a theatrical space that lends itself beautifully to Shakespeare and our central focal point is a small round pond (cauldron) covered by liftable mesh triangles, individually not too dissimilar to classic witches' hats or indeed when all the triangles are lifted up collectively, a crown. However there is nothing classic about this show which starts with loud bangs and explosions, noises of war all around us in the surround-sound space, soldiers entering wearing modern combat gear pointing their automatic rifles at us the audience. Were we about to be held hostage by these gas mask-wearing beings? This starting point set the whole tone for the rest of the performance, this was no traditional Macbeth. I was reminded of Stephen Kings ‘IT’ as one cast member arrived carrying a bright red balloon, an illusion in ‘It’ created to lure its victims to their deaths!

The witches Bryony Davies, Nicola May-Taylor and Charlotte Merriam play the zaniest witches, with their mad dancing to rave music, convulsive actions, crazy comedy and each even more mardy than your typical tantrum loving two year old. I did feel at times they were too comedic. I love seeing many different takes on the witches/weird sisters in Macbeth but at times I just didn’t relate so much to this trio, though there were definitely flashes of wonderful weirdness at times and one superb touch was that all three also double-up as tight-leather-jean-wearing gentlewomen/servants of the house. A unique idea and which I think toys with Macbeth’s mind and helps to create that madness in her mind via their control and constant influence in her journey of self destruction.

I was very impressed by Theo Ogundipe and his portrayal of Banquo. Pitched perfectly with an intelligence and likeable warmth and who for me had a wonderful stage presence. Rachel Denning plays a traumatised Lady Macduff as her children are ferociously murdered. Denning also plays the Porter who gives an updated and new speech written by Chris Thorpe, which involved her interaction with various audience members. The Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (played by Ony Uhiara) duo, were played as a same sex couple, (Macbeth is referred to as Queen and wife). I feel there were hints at all the complicated emotions involved in this highly charged relationship but it never quite hit the spot. Simply put I just felt it lacked the passion, the deep psychological undercurrent. Ellinson was an extremely energetic and watchable Macbeth, and I applaud her stamina in performing to this level night after night. For me I think she peaked a little too soon into this what I felt a too long a production, [running at just under 3 hours with interval] however what did impress me was her allowing herself to be seen, really seen. She dived into a vulnerability I have yet to witness watching a Macbeth perform. Could this be a gender issue, are women (generally) able to allow themselves to be more vulnerable and perhaps as an actress the same degree of vulnerability can be witnessed more so than a male actor performing Macbeth, are they afraid to really go there? To those very dark, lonely places, to let go fully. Haydon's production is loud, it is bright, it hits you like a metaphorical tonne of bricks. The Banquet scene where Banquo's ghost appears is like something from Alice In Wonderland where guests are in macabre and animal-esque fancy dress, donning all manner of comedic masks and a game of musical chairs ensues. I thought this scene one of Ellinson’s finest.

This production of Macbeth is busy, very busy and my head was perhaps a little over-confused by the end. However some of these choices were brave, very brave and daring to be different is courageous. It’s so easy to play safe and this production certainly does not play safe, yes it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s different, but isn’t that what makes life interesting. This take on Macbeth will get many talking, and I applaud the production for even trying to buck the trend of traditional Shakespeare. Diction was an issue at times, and although volume was there, enunciation was lacking during some speeches. Shakespeare is so wordy, I’m passionate about it and don’t want any of his words wasted on me. Paul Hickey plays a strong and likeable Macduff, I felt his pain on hearing of his family’s deaths and for me gave some of the best work within the cast. Also a mention to Ayanda (Yandass) Ndlovu who was excellent in her take on a youthful and highly spirited Fleance. The energy she brought was extremely watchable and her talent in physical moment and dance very much noted. A superb performance.

There are moments of great work in this play and I commend the choices made however ‘out there’ they may be. I do feel it could have been cut slightly, one note many audience members made at the end. Macbeth is notoriously the shortest tragedy yet this felt like quite a long affair. Some of the deep physiological aspects of relationships were not explored enough for me and the style and feel possibly too zany at times. However I 100% commend that this production has tried, tried hard to give Macbeth a newness, a creative edge, and a very much stylised approach to Shakespeare. We need more creatives out there who are willing to take risks and go a little ‘off book’ so for me where this may lose points in some areas it gains tenfold for its braveness and bold approach.

Macbeth is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 19 October

Reviewer - Mary Fogg
on - 18/9/19

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