Oct 6, 2007

Macbeth at The Giulgud

This is, by all accounts, a very good play. I've avoided reading any of the reviews since it rode proudly into London from Chichester on the back of a bandwagon full of critics braying about The Greatest Macbeth of All Time (which brings to mind the delightful idea of Billington et. al. sitting carrier bags in hand in the posh seats at the Globe, circa 1599, protesting (too much) that the indoor at Blackfriars was not the future of theatre, regardless of what the kids might say).

It was therefore with a heady cocktail of excitement, trepidation and (I'll admit) cynicism that I took my seat in the almost garishly opulent Gielgud Theatre, a vision of anachronistic splendour wonderfully at odds with the sparse, cold war bunker that was the set for this 400 year old play.

And it must be said, as a precise polished product, it is practically faultless.

Inside a sparse white concrete bunker, characters in grand Russian trench-coats stride purposefully back and forth, while trilby wearing diplomats, anonymous servants and trench-coated assassins scuttle around them. And beyond all this, three (and that should be all the clue you need to their identity) sinister nurses in grey smocks keep a meaningful eye on proceedings.

The show is beautifully choreographed; scenes and characters sweep back and forth at a pace that is almost relentless - steaming through Shakespeare's shortest play like a great soviet locomotive. Sounds boom suddenly across the theatre, the greying walls crackle into life with projections of speckling blood and great Eastern-Bloc marches. And behind it all the design's great conceit; a huge industrial lift that shudders into life, dragging character's inevitably downwards into this gloomy, bloody abyss.

Yet despite all this bombast and grandeur there are moments of sublime delicacy, mainly in the figure of Patrick Stewart, giving a staggeringly enjoyable performance. You can't help but relish all the little details that are there to notice; how Stewart's iconic bald head remains defiantly covered by a peaked military cap while the soldiers around him doff theirs to King Duncan, Stewart's bald pate only later being revealed, in a passionate first embrace with his wife. Rarely have I seen a subtler, and yet more telling, acknowledgment of where Macbeth's heart and loyalty truly reside. Stewart fizzes with energy and humour, imbuing the character with an appealing lightness that (like Fiona Shaw's Medea) only underlines his cataclysmic descent.

Elsewhere the performances are equally strong and the most searingly memorable moment is the long and utterly perfect silence that follows the reporting to Macduff of the death of his family. This single moment is an apt summation of the entire evening. A perfectly realised moment of grim horror, a precise, inventive theatrical realisation of Shakespeare at his most gruesomely thrilling.

And yet, and yet... Will it frustrate the hell out of you if I say it was all just a little too perfect?

Perfection is admirable and all but, well - let me explain.

A couple of years ago I saw Out of Joint's Macbeth in a series of abandoned catacombs in Edinburgh.

Now, even in terms of a direct dramaturgical comparison, for me OOJ's Macbeth wins it by a nose. Like it's more recent sister, it built its historical relocation on a 20th century dictatorship - but rather than Cold War Russia, this Macbeth was set in an anonymous African dictatorship with more than a nod to that latter-day King of Scotland, Idi Amin. And whereas Goold's use of a historical context felt more like a clever (and relatively safe) aesthetic choice that borrowed uniforms and stock footage to complement Shakespeare's play, OOJ's staging seemed to offer more balance -the two timeframes complementing each other, neither predominant, both enlightened by a heady dose of riotous mysticism and brutal militaristic fervour.

In addition Shakespeare's famous lines were balanced by an heady dose of disrespect for The Sacred Text, play play being sprinkled with moments of ad-libbing, modern speech and glorious invention. The result was a riotous atmosphere full of faux spiritualistic ceremony, brute violence and desperate money-making scams; the witches delivered their speeches in chanting bursts of French, the porter extorted money from members of the audience, and we were all ushered at gun point from one cave to another by a terrifyingly edgy military posse.

This production felt rough and messy; you could smell the sweat and the suspicion. So when after about 40 minutes the lights all failed, it seemed logically to be part of the show. It fast however became clear that this was not so. Techies rushed around with torches, lighting candles and edging them into the stage space. Actors made knowing hints towards the lack of light (none more so than the porter in his half-improvised speech). At a certain point it became too much and during the incredibly powerful lady Macduff murder scene we were told by the stage manager we would have to leave the space for safety reasons. The actors laughed, sighed, bowed... and the lights came back on. After a brief pause we restarted the scene and the show ran to its close.

Almost never have I had a more memorable experience at the theatre. The relationship between the actors and the audience was more meaningful, more intimate than any Shakespeare show I have ever seen. The sweaty, desperate, urgency of the show (in no small part due to all the problems) was captivating. The unpredictability of the performance only added to the bloody excitement of Shakespeare's play. The show felt like conclusive proof that theatre is never about sustaining one's disbelief, that when we see the nuts and bolts (and, indeed the actors and the techies) behind the theatrical apparatus it only enhances the glorious, euphoric experience of theatre at its best. And I will undoubtedly never forget the finale of the show as the actors (as they had been earlier, half themselves, half the characters they were portraying) grabbed instruments, from bongo drums to bagpipes, and began blasting out an exhilarating chorus into the crampt, crowded confines of a concrete underground chamber - it was one of the moments that reaffirmed my love of the medium.

So maybe my dissatisfaction with this production is entirely, subjectively unfair. But I just didn't feel it had that sense of urgency, of danger, of unpredictability. It did not feel alive in the same way. And that's undoubtedly a consequence of the necessities of producing a show for a long run in a major West End Theatre.

And so possibly, it would be fairer to say that this is as good a production of Macbeth as you are ever likely to see in the West End. What that means for the West End, I'll leave up to you.

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