So foul and fair a play I have not seen, or at least not since Lucy Bailey gored up a storm in 2010. Emma Rice’s first Season as Artistic Director at the Globe has roared into life, and this interpretation of Shakespeare’s narrative certainly packs a punch.
Where to start with this Goliath of a play? With metalwork black caging wrapped around the pillars, twisted piping that echoed coils of barbed wire turning the stage into a battlefield, and the black platform thrust-piece bringing the action to the audience– the decor brought a modern twist to the black drapery denoting early modern tragedies. Sparse but detailed, constrictive yet open: a set of contradictions which echoed the Globe itself, a modern take on Elizabethan theatre.
The atmosphere was that oxymoronic hybrid of mirth and suspense that only the Globe can provide: the audience positively hummed with humoured familiarity at every plot-twist, murder and double-entendre, revelling in shared, bare-faced glee in the face of one of the bloodiest narratives to take to the boards. A gruesome play lecturing groundlings and seated spectators alike about the dangers of over arching ambition and the fallibility of hubris, this play has it all: horror, treason, plotting and no small amount of spectacle.
The characterizations were as fantastic as they were believable, and the stars of the show were quite rightly the leading couple: the Macbeth husband and wife duo were as ambitious as they were fallible, and didn’t they sum up the desires and flaws of the Everyman? Macbeth roared his courage clad behind his protective armour, literally protected behind his assumed soldier identity, and yet mewled and stuttered when his mettle was thrown into the limelight and his manhood questioned by his wife. Lady Macbeth, stereotypically cast so forcefully as the She-Devil of Shakespeare, was as human as her husband, and twice as vulnerable once her postmodern-masculine aggression was revealed to be bravado in the face of oppressively masculine personalities. Neither partner lead nor hindered the other: both husband and wife spiralled out of control together, blinded by the promise of greatness the weird sisters promised Macbeth.
Costuming gave the production a sense of timelessness that merged the past with the present, making this Herculean battle for patriarchal supremacy seem as modern as it is Jacobean. Leather gauntlets jarred against twentieth century great-coats, while rich red velvets clashed heartily with the goose-turd greens and mottled browns. There was a fluidity that blended these styles together as effortlessly as the themes of identity and position merged soldier, thane and witch.
The only stumbling block came where Macbeth’s character reached a moral, villainous low midway through the performance and seemed to remain a stoic “Nasty” as opposed to outright “Villain”. Though it was refreshing to see that the eponymous character was given a humanity that prevented him from sinking to unbelievable immorality, and showed him to be nothing more than a man lead astray by the promise of betterment, there was a desaturation to his performance after Banquo’s assassination that left me wanting.
There was an intriguing contemporary twist to the observational humour throughout the play, with no small nod to the Presidential Race in America, Brexit, and the continuing Anglo-Scottish banter. The humour was clearly inserted to add a modern feel to an early modern play, and this modern political satire reinforced the timeless quality of the text. But it wasn’t all Trump-isms and Brexit bashing: the Porter’s scene was as lewd as ever, but with a fresh twist when the masculine became feminine. She flirted with the audience, wriggled and drooled over the burly-accented Macduff, and strutted and swaggered about the stage in ripped fishnets.
The witches and prophecies: wow. There were women onstage to bring the weird sisters to life, but not as expected. Littering the stage at the beginning of the performance were pieces of tailor’s mannequins, medicinal skeleton and grotesque masks of varying states of decay and horrific grimace. When the time came, the veiled women selected choice pieces and formed the prophetic mediums, their voices provided by singers which gave the visions ethereal atmosphere. The marriage of theatricality, puppetry and musicality blended within this production to give the performance a hybridity of human and artistry, themes which reflect the central question of fate and self-prophecy in Macbeth.
The performance concluded with a jig, as traditional in the Globe as the scripted dialogue: there was a vivacity to the stomping, cheering and twirling that lifted the spirits as much as it underpinned the martial beat of the drums of Macbeth’s military theme. There has been some controversy about the optimism of a jig against the tragedy of some of Shakespeare’s plays, but there is no denying that the audience clapping in time with the dancers’ beat brings the whole house together, rounding the performance off with an immersive experience.
My final thought is more of a question than an examination: throughout the production, a small boy hovered in the vision of the audience. Holding hands with Lady Macbeth, presented at the coronation, hanging onto Macbeth’s cloak: this was the child of the prophesied heirless kingship, so what was his fate? Though an innocent of his parents, as the living legacy of a tyrant and a fiendish mother, what would become of this young heir?
This was a production that was at once innovative as it was traditional, bringing new questions to a timeless playtext. I can’t wait until this production is released on DVD so I can take it in all over again!