Both the text and this performance of Macbeth are timeless, gritty, and fascinating. Reviewers always want people to see plays with the same sense of wonder and surprise that they experienced it, which makes reviewing a performance with deft twists on this classic difficult. Any words put on paper cannot possibly live up to this performance, but I will try here. If there is only one play you see this season, if there is only one evening you take of late in Trinity Term, it needs to be this one.
Macbeth is a tragedy par excellence, and Shakespeare at his best. For those unfamiliar with the text, the play revolves around the ambitions and hubris of the titular character. We watch as he vaunts from minor fief to king and then falls from happiness, sanity, love, power, and life.
Director Michael Boyd’s ambitions, at least, are fulfilled in this piece. He left the play un-periodized, which made it feel timeless and cloaked the audience in a blanket of disbelief. The stage itself, brilliant designed by Tim Piper, is reminiscent of a crumbling chapel: blown-out glass-stained windows, crumbling artifice, defaced idols. The play literally envelops the audience, as entrances are made from the back of the stalls, from the ceiling, and the floor. The ambiance of decay and corruption, of the acrid taste of ambition flawed, complements the actors’ performances and the director’s visions.
This production holds nothing back. The blood and gore of war and murder are fully on display. The death scenes are harrowing. Banquo dies fighting; Lady Macduff dies struggling against her captors as her children are killed in front of her. The music selection (a live three-piece cello ensemble and drums) and lighting combine to hold the audience in tense suspense throughout the entire performance. The violence and fear of tyranny is spelled out on the stage.
The most effective device of the play, and perhaps the most innovative, is the casting of the witches. Instead of making them croons or sirens, Boyd instead chooses to display a much more sinister form of evil: he casts the witches as near-dead children. Their voices echo, their pale and bruised faces leer at the actors and the audience, their shrieks and laughter haunt the theatre. The children are truly terrifying.
On the whole, the acting is superb. There are hiccups, though. Malcolm (Howard Charles) doesn’t justify his character’s transition from faithful son to outlaw to avenger as well as could be done. Macbeth (Jonathan Slinger) takes a while to warm up – the first few scenes of his are wooden and stilted. However, as the play progresses (and Macbeth increasingly becomes insane), Boyd’s faith in Slinger is justified: by the end of the production pity, hatred, and fear simultaneously flood the audience while watching Macbeth struggle against the fate of his own making. The constantly revolving supporting cast is solid (especially the poignant and complex rendition of Lady Macduff by Caroline Martin), allowing Lord and Lady Macbeth to shine in their horrible glory. This play is not to be missed.