Macbeth encrypted

Macbeth, The Crypt St Andrew Holborn, 22 October 2011

The crypt of this church consists of three long arched vaults running parallel to each other, connected halfway along their lengths by a corridor and with another transverse space hidden beyond one end.

The first vault by the entrance stairs was used by Baz Productions as a foyer to contain the box office and bar, as well as a display of rehearsal photographs, blog printouts and a set of fluorescent tubes onto which lines from Macbeth had been stencilled.

Before the performance began the audience was ushered from this foyer into the second vault, which was lined on both sides by plastic stackable chairs.

Clothing particular to each character, with the relevant name printed on a tie-on parcel label, hung from pegs on the walls. However, these labels were not always legible and for this and other reasons prior knowledge of the play was often necessary to make sense of the action.

Three witches with single red gloves began the performance. They entered at both ends of the vault and through the central connecting corridor. In a hint of role transference to come, there was a nice touch as the words “fair is foul” were spoken by one witch, whereupon another cut in to supplement and correct saying “and foul is fair”.

The action flowed seamlessly into 1.2 with Lucy Bruegger in the role of Duncan. This was fairly static. As the characters indicated by oddments of clothing the emphasis was on the language, which was clearly spoken and a pleasure to listen to. Everything was characterised by clarity and a certain degree of elegance.

Back with the witches again in 1.3, “I’ll give thee a wind” saw one of them extract a sound from their mouth, humming and miming the action of drawing it out. This was copied by the others. Their respective “winds” were gathered together and taken to the end of vault where they were cast out through a rough hole. Offstage actors, unseen on the other side of the hole, continued the sound which echoed back into the vault. This was an excellent use of the space.

The witches stood at one end of the vault to hear Macbeth’s drum. They clasped their hands on top of each other for the “thrice to thine” speech.

Macbeth (Ffion Jolly) and Banquo entered through the other end. As Macbeth challenged them to speak they walked towards the centre casting their red character gloves to the ground and walked out the central corridor. Banquo picked up the gloves when describing how the witches had disappeared like bubbles.

Move

After the brief 1.4 in which Macbeth realises that Malcolm stands in his way to the throne, the audience was told to rise from their chairs. We were then rearranged to stand lining both sides of the central connecting corridor for the start of 1.5.

Lady Macbeth (Katherine Newman), wearing her character’s red shawl, took Macbeth’s letter from its hook on the wall and read it out. As the central connecting corridor was only a few feet across, she paced up and down it only inches away from the faces of the audience.

She addressed some of her lines directly at individuals who could feel the heat of her breath. It was very effective to have this exposition of her intimate thoughts staged so intimately.

We stayed in this configuration through the next two scenes so that we got a close-up look at the arrival of Duncan chez Macbeth and also at the stand-off as Macbeth tried to back out of his plan to murder the king.

Macbeth’s vision of the spectral dagger was staged with a red-gloved witch holding a real dagger just off the ground, as Ffion Jolly’s Macbeth stood some distance away and contemplated the murder of Duncan.

Scott Brooksbank took over from Ffion just as Macbeth resolved “I go and it is done”. This was one of the few occasions where a change of actor accompanied a turning point in the character’s development. The implication was that the womanish milk of human kindness had at this point been replaced by something more manly.

The audience was moved on again to the third vault and sat on chairs and blankets in one half for the start of 2.2.

Macbeth returned from the murder with his hands full of rose petals representing blood. As he rubbed his hands together the petals slowly dropped to the floor. Another Macbeth appeared carrying the daggers which Lady Macbeth then took back into the grooms’ chamber. Lady Macbeth also returned with rose petal blood hands.

The porter scene had Ffion Jolly ask if anyone of us had murdered somebody. Her speech was completely off-text, but ended with the words “remember the porter”. This was an attempt at modernising the scene to create comic effect, which meant that the discussion of such things as urine and nose painting was cut.

Rats

After the discovery of Duncan’s murder (2.3) there was another invented scene with Scott Brooksbank sitting amongst us telling us that he has just turned 35 before talking to someone else about the large number of rats scurrying around outside. This seemed to represent the conversation between the Old Man and Ross about recent events and the resulting disturbances in nature.

An interesting twist occurred when, after act three’s build up to the murder of Banquo, one of the murderers deliberately let Fleance escape.

The haunted banquet scene (3.4) began with Lady Macbeth addressing the audience as if we were the banqueting lords. The ghost of Banquo was represented by a jacket which was manipulated by two witches so that its empty form appeared to creep along the ground moaning. This was very effective as the jacket really did look as if it was animated by a disembodied presence.

After the interval we were taken back into a space running across the end of the vaults. Scene 3.5 was cut so that the action continued with act four.

With the audience gathered around them in a semicircle, the three witches sat on a short flight of stone steps. They played with fibre optic cables emanating light from the end. After a shortened version of the cauldron sequence the witches indicated the pricking of their thumbs by placing their opposable digits over the end of their cables so that they glowed red as the light shone through them.

Macbeth (Lucy Bruegger) clambered through a hole in the wall and spoke to the witches. They delivered their double-edged prophesies and the show of eight kings was staged by a series of kings being flung to the ground from a pack of cards.

The audience moved back to the third vault and sat on ground again to witness the murder of Lady Macduff and her children (4.2). The murderers were equipped with a power drill and a saw.

Sound and light then emanated from behind our backs. We turned to see a video sequence, filmed in depths of the Barbican, projected onto the back wall showing Malcolm and Macduff in England (4.3). Macduff’s attempt to get Malcolm to fight against Macbeth was intercut with Ross setting off from the crypt and driving to the Barbican car park.

Video was used to emphasise that this action was far removed in England. But despite the cleverness of the idea the action appeared too static, with the trio of Malcolm, Macduff and later Ross stood around talking in a triangle.

Still in the third vault, we witnessed Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalk (5.1) lit by a candelabra with only two of its three candles present and lit. She scrubbed her hands of the rose petals previously used to represent blood.

As the play moved towards its conclusion we were moved back into the second vault where the performance had started. There was some invented dialogue about Macbeth having “completely lost it” and fortifying his castle, which castle was then attacked by the English army.

The killing of Macbeth saw Geoffrey Lumb’s Macduff run towards Ffion Jolly’s Macbeth with the lights cut just as they met. Only Macbeth’s jacket remained as Malcolm kicked at it in the final scene.

But what did it all mean?

I left the crypt in the strangest of moods. I could have quite easily described what I had seen but was for some time incapable of accessing my own reactions to the production.

This was testament to the novelty of its presentation of the play. It had tickled parts of the mind that are normally left untouched, so that the standard repertoire of responses to performance was inadequate.

The first few scenes had been lyrical and beautifully spoken with the cast creating something wonderful and coherent from the play. But notes of discord and dislocation entered the performance when the actors started to swap roles between them.

If this was an attempt to remove ‘character’ from the production, then for me at least it had the opposite effect. Offering up multiple versions of the same character brought home the importance of character.

Seeing one actor’s take on Macbeth, followed by another version of Cawdor, offered different perspectives that merged into one image. The overall effect was rather like a Cubist painting.

Five actors, three women and two men each brought unique qualities to the main role and each change of actor reinvigorated and stimulated appreciation of the instant rather than providing a sense of a unified character’s trajectory through the story.

Each combination of actors and roles became an ephemeral bubble to be appreciated in the moment before it burst, only to be replaced by another bubble.

This was enforced by frequent movements of audience to different parts of crypt and the long video sequence. The story took second place to the varying impressions generated by these constant realignments.

But there was a downside to this: if there were no ‘characters’ in the traditional sense, there could be no sustained relationships between the characters and no sense of development. Character lived in the eternal present and had neither past nor future.

This style of performance also meant that we saw a Lord and Lady Macbeth who never touched each other. And with no sense of their relationship, Macbeth’s sorrow at her death rung empty.

Director Sarah Bedi is to be congratulated on taking risks and being bold in her first production. This was an experiment to explore what happens when a play is performed in a very specific way. The result was intriguing, possibly more so than the safe option of a traditional staging would have been.

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