“Love and humanity scattered amid the horror”

Emily Lawford enjoys a genuinely frightening production of Macbeth

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the programme notes for Macbeth, director Georgia Nicholson writes that her intention for this production was to access the “wealth of extraordinary ruggedness, grit and emotion” in Shakespeare’s text. Staged in the large Jacqueline du Pre building, in St Hilda’s College, with minimalist setting and eerie lighting by Alex Jacobs, there is no escape or distraction from Macbeth’s slow corruption and fall. Placing the play firmly in eleventh century Scotland—the true time and place of the real Scottish king Macbeth and his contemporaries—is a sensible choice by Nicholson. The horror felt by medieval men encountering the witches and ghosts make them seem far more palpable and threatening than if the play were set in modern times, where the supernatural is just the stuff of horror movies and superstitions are mocked. The medieval setting also makes the brutality of the men, the ties of loyalty and the “omnipresence of death” that Nicholson wished to evoke seem far more immediate and of vital concern.

The characters had all been daubed in blue face paint, representing Celtic tribal tattoos. The lines of blue across Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s eyes gave them a menacing look that was almost otherworldly. I was stunned by Christopher Page’s performance in the title role. Nuanced and charismatic, we watched him shift from a man struggling with his ambition and his conscience, to one completely overpowered by his deeds, broken by his wife’s death and on the verge of losing his mind, baiting Macduff like a hunted animal and railing against the ‘walking shadow’ of life. Hannah Chukwu’s Lady Macbeth was an unusually sympathetic portrayal, but this was effective in explaining her control over her husband’s actions, and ability to lead him to murder when he faltered. The contrast between her loving embraces with him, and the icy moments of control and anger at his weakness was chilling. Occasionally, perhaps, I would have liked to see more menace from her, particularly at the shocking “unsex me here” speech, but her frailty when driven mad by the guilt of her actions was particularly poignant. Cai Jauncey played Macduff in an effective cross-gender casting—she matched Macbeth’s brutality and the moment when she heard of the death of her daughter and wife was extremely moving. Benedict Turvill’s Banquo was equally strong, as was his haunting stare as Banquo’s ghost.

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Wisely, Nicholson did not attempt to show the apparitions that speak to Macbeth near the end of the play, a bloody child, a severed head and a royal child holding a tree. With a student budget this would be near-impossible to recreate. The witches, however, faces shrouded in black cloth, were genuinely frightening, as was their ghostly chanting. Perhaps the play could have benefited from some judicious cuts, especially in the second half, but that might have risked ruining the dramatic tension leading up to the final battle. The production managed to superbly evoke the brutality and fear of Shakespeare’s play, in a bleak setting, with just enough moments of love and humanity scattered amid the horror.