Star rating: 4
As you’d expect, I’ve been round the block many times with this play. I’ve probably seen 50 productions and because it featured so often on the O level, GCSE or, later, the Key Stage 3 syllabus I’ve taught it to more classes than you can shake branch of Birnam Wood at too. It means I know the text almost as well as the actors do. Never, however, have I seen a Macbeth as visceral and muscular as this one. Flabbergast Theatre’s take on physical theatre takes in puppetry, dance, song, drumming and comedy all wrapped up in some riveting movement. The term “physical theatre” doesn’t actually do it justice. It’s an understatement.
All eight cast members – five male and three female – wear grubby beige skirts over trousers and each role emerges from the ensemble. The seating is on three sides in the Large at Southwark Playhouse’s Borough building. As the audience files in it has to walk round a disturbingly weird (I use the word in Shakespeare’s sense) scene in which the cast pants, whimpers, moans, intones and leaps about interacting with each other. It must have been great fun to devise. It’s pretty menacing scene setting and one tearful little girl, aged about 9, had to be taken out by her parents before the play even began at the performance I saw.
The action is devised but the text and the verse speaking are respectful. I liked the idea of chorusing the account of Macbeth’s valour at the beginning rather than leaving it with the Bloody Sargeant and it meant we could have graphic mime to convey the brutality of “unseaming” someone from “the nave to the chops”. And remember in small talk about extreme weather Macbeth says “Twas a rough night”? Well he’s just committed regicide so obviously it’s a double edged comment. I have never heard an audience chuckle at it before which shows how engaging and intelligent the story telling is.
It’s a production full of original ideas. Duncan is calculating, unlikeable and probably senile with a hideous cackle. The porter scene is almost wordless and certainly doesn’t use Shakespeare’s words but it’s funny and does the job it’s meant to – building up the anticipation before the finding of Duncan’s body. There is always a hint of sexual chemistry between the Macbeths but I’ve never seen it as overtly played as this and there is a strong suggestion, as they plot, that they find violence sexually arousing. The banquet scene is simply but effectively done with a large board from which Banquo’s ghost emerges.
The witches meanwhile, since they’re on stage all the time and play other roles, convey the impression that they’re part of everyone. And I really liked the whole cast creation of the apparition which the witches show him when he visits them for advice after the murder of Banquo. The whole cast creates a many headed monster when Macbeth is commissioning the assassin too.
This Macbeth is a taut production running just over two hours including an interval which is probably needed as much by the exhausted cast as by the emotionally battered audience. I found it a refreshing approach but if you want “traditional” Shakespeare with long uncut speeches and each role cast and costumed then this is not for you. The fact that at least 10 people didn’t return after the interval at the performance I attended is a sad but clear indicator that this way of working isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
This review will be published by Sardines in due course.