Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ***

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 15th November 2018

Is this a dagger I see before me … well maybe more of a kitchen knife …

It is pretty tightly plotted (at least if you pare it down). It is quick by comparison to a lot of the Bard – half the length of Hamlet, though that always needs a few nips and tucks – in part perhaps because Thomas Middleton adapted the text that has come down to us. It wastes no time at all in getting going – if anything it is a bit too abrupt at the start I reckon. Other than Macbeth and his lady wife most of the characters don’t get much air time to reveal themselves. It’s language is direct, often shockingly so. It is eminently quotable. There is no welter of arcane classical references. Most interested people know it or know of it (it’s a GCSE set text after all). The themes are easily defined and understood – ambition and patriotism, moral disorder and inversion, violence begetting violence, childlessness and legacy, gender roles and masculinity, the suppression of feeling and equivocation, the supernatural.

It might be built on an edifice of contemporary (when written) conventions, verse speaking, soliloquies, quibbles, audience asides, witches, ghosts, a dumb show, severed heads, but it is the supernatural that gives plenty of scope for coups de theatre. It may also have been intended to massage a royal ego, the patron of the company that first performed it, Jimmy I (of England, No 6 of Scotland) being an expert in the magic field with his best-seller Demonology, and coming just after the failed Roman Catholic plot to blow him up. Yet the supernatural also works on our imagination, (as it works on the power couple), always a good idea in a play, which, together with big Will’s acute psychological insight, and repetitive language – blood, blood and more blood, time, darkness, man – explains why it is so popular.

So why then is it apparently now so difficult to get right? Search me though if I take this somewhat disappointing version, alongside the similarly underwhelming recent NT production, (and plenty more in the last decade), the problem might lie in trying to hang too much on the play. No problem with a clear overarching creative vision but keep it simple. Don’t add all sorts of frills – there are enough interpretative and visual choices to be made from the text itself. Make sure the two leads nail the verse. No mumbling. Ensure they can explain their motivations – remember they are travelling in opposite directions, from normative revulsion to nihilistic emptiness in the case of Macbeth and vice versa for the Lady. The other characters can play it straight. Duncan is a symbol of kingship, Banquo matters because he doesn’t fall for all that weird sister sh*t. (And he can scare us later). The Porter is there to offer ironic commentary, warn against those who say one thing and do another, and, here in this production, very successfully mind the time. Everyone else is pretty much plot collateral.

It works best when we the audience are dragged into the couple’s nightmare. Small space, simple staging, like the landmark Dench/McKellen/Nunn RSC version. Or the Walter/Sher/Doran apparently, which kicked off in darkness. The recent Ninagawa version, though it is different, worked because the Samurai backdrop leant contextual clarity and the age of the couple a desperate poignancy.  The 2015 Justin Kurzel film, if you can forgive the accents, also has a clear aesthetic and some very smart interpretative choices. You can add your own to the list.

In this version however, director Deborah Findlay, seems to have focussed on the details of the visual, and on the “horror” to the exclusion of the themes. Some of this works, notably Michael Hodgson’s Geordie Porter, always present, tapping his watch, chalking up the body count, hoovering incessantly, disturbing in his ordinariness, as well as the digital clock countdown, even if it is a big of a cliche, which links to the theme of time passing. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, clawing and pawing, also has the measure of most of her key lines and David Acton’s Duncan, whilst a little fruity, is what you expect from a man born (rather than compelled) to rule. However Christopher Eccleston, whilst capturing Macbeth’s military bearing, doesn’t, for me, vary the verse sufficiently, such that he comes across as insufficiently tortured by events. The same is true of the Edward Bennett’s Macduff who comes across as more geography teacher than grief stricken revenger. Mr Bennett is an outstanding Shakespearean, especially in comedy, but he looked lost here. Rafael Sowole’s hefty Banquo was more convincing, especially as ghost. 

Having the witches played by three girls, dressed in red, Don’t Look Now/Shining style and signifying blood, is initially striking but the novelty soon palls. The jump cut fizzing/flickering lighting from Lizzie Powell, and the “spine-chilling” score from Rupert Cross and sound design of Christopher Shutt leans a little heavily towards the cinematic. Fly Davies’ set, with de rigeur upper level, accommodates the interpretation but doesn’t really wow or command the front of the vast Barbican stage. 

Having said all this the production doesn’t drag, it squeezes out a few laughs, not all intended, and its pinball of ideas craves attention. Maybe I should try some of the other current London Macbeth’s, the NYT at the Garrick, or the Michelle Terry/ Paul Ready at the Sam Wanamaker (if it wasn’t so bloody uncomfortable, and more problematically, sold out). Or maybe I’ll just wait. Something wicked will this come again soon. 

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican review ***

Romeo and Juliet

Barbican Theatre, 8th November 2018

You can stay right next to Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Le Suite de Giulietta. The Tourist, SO, BD and LD can vouch for the lovely decor, the sizeable rooms and the delicious breakfast. The courtyard is closed at night so it is very tranquil and, in the day, it is quite fun watching the crowds do a double take when you exit from the hotel. And Verona itself is a very fine city. 

Now I am not a berk. I know it was a window not a balcony. And that this is a story which Will S nicked from William Painter via Arthur Brooke via numerous Italian medieval raconteurs, including Dante, and then all the way back to Ovid and Xenophon. But even this cranky curmudgeon can get swept along by the definitive tale of young love dashed. Though Shakespeare being Shakespeare there is a lot more too it than that, what with the examination of gang violence, pointless vendettas, family loyalty, sexual freedom the curious nature of Mercutio, the expanding eloquence of Romeo, the precocity of Juliet (she’s supposed to be coming up to 14 remember), the constancy of Benvolio, the comic good-naturedness of the Nurse and the misguided and hare-brained intervention of Friar Laurence.

It’s easy to see why R&J is so popular and has been presented in so many ways. The denouement with our two dead teens is always, or should be, a tearjerker, even as we know the outcome, the idiocy of Friar John – all you had to do was deliver a letter, how hard is that numbnut – is always a reason to shake your fist, the reconciliation of the families, (even as you know it won’t last), always stirs, there are some good, often dirty, jokes and some fine, sweet verse. 

It can endure a lot of textual and/or directorial abuse, (though it is hard to fathom the happy endings of previous centuries), and, even with the sub-plots is a breeze to follow, even without the Friar’s helpful “brief” summary at the end. What it doesn’t like though, in my book, is less than clear delivery of the verse. You need to hear the clever way WS matches language and form to character, you should clock the sonnets, you ought to grasp the filter of metaphor and religion through the language of love, and hate, you should be left to decide for yourself whether the narrative is driven by “fate”, by “chance” or by character “flaws” or “humours” and you need time to ponder on Shakespeare’s preoccupation with, well, time.

In this respect I wasn’t entirely convinced by director Erica Whyman’s gung-ho interpretation. The youthful cast, in the relevant roles, certainly brings to the fore the recklessness of their behaviours, their strutting self-absorption, their need for peer validation, and the brings out the parallels to contemporary knife crime. Bally Gill’s impetuous, swaggering yet still sensitive, Romeo and Karen Fishwick’s animated, “mature beyond her years”, Juliet could live in any city near you right now. They certainly have the chemistry. Charlotte Josephine brings a whole new dimension to Mercutio’s complexity, his/her relationship with Romeo and exaggerated masculinity. To me there was almost a rap like quality to Mercutio’s wilder flights of linguistic fancy. Josh Finan’s Benvolio offered counsel to Romeo which maybe also sprung from a deeper admiration. The gender fluidity in the Houses of Montague and Capulet also extended to Donna Banya’s timid Gregory. 

In the adult roles casting Beth Cordingley as Escalus pays off especially when she spits out “you men, you beasts” and Michael Hodgson is a severe Daddy Capulet who pushes his daughter into disobedience. Ishia Bennison’s Nurse also delivers, offering up her deceptively “simple” verse complete with funny accent. Andrew French’s Friar L relished every syllable. Tom Piper’s set, with oxidised cube, doesn’t really add much, then nor does it detract, (well maybe a bit at the end), and Ayse Tashkiran’s movement seems more in tune with Erica Whyman’s vision than some of the other creatives. As well as time, Will S bangs on about light and dark, night and day, sun and moon/stars, incessantly through the play, and the whole tone lurches to the minor post Mercutio’s slaying by Tybalt, but this contrast didn’t fully emerge. Sophie Cotton’s score similarly veered towards the murky. 

Overall then, in trying to explore the “tragedy of youth” and the intricacy of passion in a fresh and recognisably modern setting, to get to the root of “feelings”, the words sometimes ended up grating. The chopping of text wasn’t always helpful. And the delivery was uneven. I want to believe that this unlikely chain of events really could happen, to see the “if-onlys” as exactly that, and not to watch some swooning melodrama, but I also want to hear and digest exactly what everyone is saying. So big picture, this works, in some of the details, it is a little less cogent.