Review by Sam Waite
One theory states that superstitions of bad luck around saying the title of "The Scottish Play" grew out of how oft-produced the Shakespearean tragedy was, and still is. Generally thought of as an easy sell and likely to draw a crowd, hearing the name Macbeth out loud might be a sign that your poorly-sold show is soon to be replaced with something more likely to recoup the investment. Rivalled perhaps only by Romeo and Juliet, the extensive re-mountings and interpretations of Macbeth make regular theatregoers wonder if there are any fresh ways to interpret the piece.
With The Tragedy of Macbeth, Flabbergast Theatre make their first foray into narrative theatre, and certainly bring new ideas to the table. Combining their expertise in an array of performance art – clowning, mime, puppetry, percussion, and dance, to name a few – they present a bold, imaginative piece which is somehow minimalist and maximalist in tandem. For every element kept to its simplest form, another is a grotesque and unnerving spectacle.
As the audience files into the place, the ensemble cast performs an interpretive dance without music, accompanied by their own guttural moans and fits of frantic laughter. Coated with clay and donning the floor-length skirts they will wear for much of the performance, their presence is a work of discomforting and abstract horror, building a sense of dread before this Tragedy begins. An attention-grabbing creation by movement director Matej Matejka, this is one of the most effective of the off-kilter choices, many of which serve to distract from the story itself.
Simon Gleave does well as Macbeth himself, though his strength as an actor is more readily apparent when he's allowed quieter, less overwhelmed moments in which to delve into the language. Under the direction of director/designer Henry Maynard, he speaks the language beautifully in the more quiet moments, while allowing others to share in what would be “his moments” in a more traditional staging. Unfortunately, the involvement of interpretive movement, whispering voices and percussive accompaniment by the other performers, all in identical garb, make it increasingly difficult to follow the plot and stay aware of who is speaking and about what.
Briony O'Callaghan plays Lady Macbeth with a delicious mania which, while dynamic and exciting, leaves her with no place to go dramatically as the story progresses. A maddened, self-traumatised Lady Macbeth doesn't feel shocking or grown into when the would-be Queen of Scotland is already teetering over the edge of insanity when we first meet her. O'Callaghan and Gleave share a brilliant moment during the pair's wicked plotting, where the dialogue is spoken as they perform an erotic pas de deux – the ravenous energy they gripe at each other with gives unsettling insight into their thrill at committing murder in exchange for power.
With the trio of witches whose prophecy guides Macbeth's plotting and deceit brought to life by three of the ensemble moving and speaking in perfect unison, and at one point wrapping around one another to form one grotesque creature, there is a great deal of promise in the physical theatre background utilised here. Some of the ideas explored, though, confused me as to how they added to the narrative or what they were intended to represent. Brilliant puppetry was used wherever a child was called for, but why there were puppets and not simply another role for the small ensemble was never clear.
Likewise, a clown routine by Dale Wylde, simultaneously genuinely funny and incredibly unnerving, seemed only to grind the narrative to a temporary halt. Wylde's physicality, high-pitched inflections and banter with the crowd were delightful, but didn't seem connected at all to the tragedy at hand. Admittedly, this bleak, almost dystopian vision of Macbeth's Scotland might call for some comic relief, but this was another disconnect I struggled to contend with.
I found myself immediately captivated by Henry Maynard's designs – a bleak, barren landscape inhabited by the ensemble in their matching spiked vests and suspenders, each fitted with a floor-length skirt regardless of gender. The uniformity and utilitarian nature were instantly striking, and combined with the coating of clay across the performers' skin, this all seemed to suggest some ancient, inhuman society. For myself, there were simply too many ideas at play here – booming drums threatening to drown out dialogue, interpretive movement making genuine actions unclear, and the cast of characters too easily lost in this blank, impersonal vision.
Despite lofty intentions and clear passion for the material and for all manners of performance, this Macbeth will likely prove divisive. Glancing around me towards the evening's climax, I noticed that some were as fully engaged as they had been from the start, some looked confounded by what they were seeing, while others looked not bored but exhausted, not fed up with the play but overwhelmed with the sheer bombast of it all. Flabbergast's The Tragedy of Macbeth is bold, striking, and unfortunately too overwrought for my tastes.
The Tragedy of Macbeth plays at The Southwark Playhouse Borough until April 8th.
Tickets and more information can be found at: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/macbeth/
Photos by Michael Lynch