Touted as one of their ‘relaxed performances’, the Globe’s Macbeth seeks to “break down walls to cultural access and empower teenagers to develop their creative curiosity”. At a juncture where many of us are reconsidering the platforms and media employed in theatrical staging, this take on the play contributes to a highly contemporary conversation. We can overstate the democratic potential of the online availability of theatre productions. Yet, combined as this production is with an audio-described version and guides to the performance (also available online), and various provisions for barriers to viewing the performance live, there arise at this moment new avenues for exploration. As we are all confined to our homes, we can perhaps become a little more attuned to the possibilities for widening cultural access.
Though Cressida Brown’s Macbeth is pitched to a younger audience, it remains disturbing viewing for all ages. At the play’s opening, the scene is set with a stack of corpses; as a figure clad in rags mounts the putrefied pile and gnaws at fruit from the wreckage, we are accosted with an uncomfortably humanising depiction of the first weird sister. As a scavenger, who also acquires the “pilot’s thumb” by ravaging his body with her teeth, the supernatural figure is not so removed from the material needs of those in the human realm. In this, she alludes to the cannibalistic predation and gory projects of survival which haunts the scenes to come.
Generally, the production relies on minimal staging – in an effort, perhaps, to encourage younger audiences to engage with the intricate psychological spaces opened up in the dialogue. Visual cues, however, helpfully flag changing allegiances, notably in Scottish and English insignia, posters which name Macbeth a tyrant, and some strategically placed helium balloons. In the first Act, King Duncan holds a party celebrating the military victories of Macbeth and Banquo, for which the set is adorned with balloons which read ‘congrats’; in the disarray of the party’s aftermath, ‘rats’ remains the header emblazoned across the subsequent scene, in which Lady Macbeth impels her husband to murderous action. The ‘rats’ are hidden, after all, in plain sight, prophesied from the outset.
The cast at large appear in various shades of Scottish blue, which on the pregnant Lady Macbeth acquires a particularly Madonna-like quality. Without wishing to labour the pun, this unborn child offers a fruitful addition. The visible bump, protruding through a boiler suit and combined with the lady’s hardy boots signpost corrupted femininity: this is the belly Lady Macbeth cradles as she calls on the fates to “unsex me now” and indeed when she professes the casual indifference with which she would dash out the brains of “the babe that milks me”. There is a measure of artistic license, certainly, but as Act IV reveals that Macbeth is childless, there is some implication of a lost child in Shakespeare’s text which drives much of the abortive action. Equally, of course, this pregnant figure attends to Macbeth’s infantilization at the mercy of his wife.
Famously the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is here marginally abridged for a 90-minute performance. The result is pithy, maintaining the key action and driving imagery. There is perhaps one regrettable omission: the porter’s scene. True, the production maintains the comic interlude: the porter stumbles on, casts himself as hell’s gatekeeper, and conjectures on what manner of devil may be knocking. With the inclusion of a more readily intelligible knock-knock joke—coupled with an intertextual reference to Hamlet, at that—the scene remains the sole comedic punctuation of the play. But, in this edit, we also miss the play’s most explicit take on equivocation, a major theme throughout, complementing the witches’ ambiguous apparitions and Macbeth’s uncertain loyalties, not to mention the fact that the drunken porter may know more than he lets on. Oversimplification, however, is no major fault in this production. In all, the Globe’s more accessible Macbeth does justice to its legacy: it is simple, yet effective.
The Globe is actively encouraging donations from its audience, as it has warned it may not survive the financial impact of the global pandemic.