“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Friday 26th July 2013

I’ve never believed that the Globe space is one which supports tragedy well. I’m aware that, obviously, many early modern plays were written for spaces just like this one, but I find the epic size and shape of the space to be stifling during the more intimate and passionate moments of tragedy, whilst the psychology of some characters gets lost in the rafters. In her production of Macbethhowever, Eve Best (making her directorial début) picks up on this failing by finding humour wherever she can so that, though we lose a rather heavy dosage of the tragedy of the text, it becomes a snappy and enjoyable – if half-baked – black comedy.

Thinking about it, I reckon Macbeth is probably one of the hardest of Shakespeare’s plays to put on stage. Though many kids are taught it at school and it’s pretty well-known, it’s never quite given the esteem of, say, Hamlet or Othello. At the same time, however, I’d hazard a guess that it’s performed more than those plays (possibly for that very reason, though I have no statistic whatsoever to back that up) and there rarely seem to be a time when there isn’t a major production on somewhere. Also, even though it’s probably, like many Shakespeare plays, over-performed, it never ceases to feel extremely current, with its meditations on tyranny always having some kind of place in the sociopolitical discussions of the time. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really good production of it.

Which I imagine is why I enjoyed this production; it felt new (it wasn’t saying anything new but I felt like I had to re-evaluate the play somewhat). Best manages to elicit from her actors a style of speech which forces us to view the dialogue afresh, implementing pauses where the text wouldn’t suggest and shifting the emphases of words for maximum comic effect. Even at the end, after the bloody climax of the play with a mangled Macbeth lying centre stage, there is a moment of laughter once as Malcolm is hailed “Kind of Scotland” and he stands sheepishly unsure what to do and then again on the line “thanks to all”, which he says buoyantly as if he’s just had guests round for dinner.

It’s difficult to work out exactly what this approach does to the play. On a simple level, it makes us like Macbeth more as an individual. Joseph Millson’s King is less a power-hungry tyrant whose fate we don’t give a toss about than a bumbling but loveable fool who we genuinely care for as Macduff slays him. Similarly, the tragedy comes later but faster, as we lose the impending doom but are hit hard when it becomes clear what the fate of the Macbeths is going to be. On a practical level, it also means that the dialogue can be a little snappier and a lot less weighted; the banquet scene plays out as a miniature farce.

Unfortunately, most of the play’s commentary on power and its effects is lost. There is barely any tonal shift once Macbeth gets the crown and there is little sense that he is much of a tyrant at all, meaning the whole thing struggles to make an impact in the here and now. There is also a disconnect between the world of the play and the image presented to us by Mike Britton’s design, with little attempt to make space for the supernatural at all. The back wall has been hidden by a two-storey high white palisade (strangely evoking the picket fences of the American dream) which is muddied and brown at its bottom, giving a far more earthy and brutal visual than is suggested by the tone of the production. Worse than that, however, is the fact that sometimes the comedy is pushed to tipping point. When Bette Borne’s droll Porter enters in clown make-up, for example, we get the sense that things have become just that little bit too silly.

Best does elicit some strong performances from her cast, however, making this one of the strongest ensemble’s I’ve seen on the Globe stage with everyone being given the freedom to put their own spin on the verse. Stuart Bowman’s sturdy Macduff has a genuine arc in this production, and the death of Billy Boyd’s jocular Banquo offers one of the more harrowing moments of the piece. Though Millson’s delivery sometimes gives too much weight to the ‘famous’ speeches, it is elsewhere a performance of naive conviction and a smart – if somewhat broad – portrait of a man’s rise and fall. His stupidity also means Samantha Spiro’s Lady Macbeth becomes the ‘straight man’, as it were, in this comedy double act, her wild intelligence making her arguably more central

In the midst of all this humour, the witches have barely any place at all and rather than being a driving force behind the play instead offer incidental musical interludes (Olly Fox) which are largely inconsequential. If anything, it feels like in this particular production they could be cut altogether and it wouldn’t make much impact. And here lies the biggest flaw in the production. Though Best offers up a pacey, sharp and enjoyable interpretation of the play, it’s half-hearted as it stands. You get the feeling that the decision to make it into a black comedy could be highly interesting and reveal a great deal about the text and its themes if only the risk was taken to push things that little bit further. It worked for Ionesco with Macbett, so it’s easy to imagine it also working with an adapted version of the original text.

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