5 stars *****
Royal Lyceum Theatre
THERE’S SOMETHING exhilarating about the sheer scale of the contrast between the huge 2008: Macbeth, which opened this year’s festival theatre programme at Ingliston on Friday, and this flawless theatrical miniature, at the Royal Lyceum until Tuesday. One boasts a gigantic set, a large cast, and lavish production values; the other features a single actor on a dark stage furnished with a plain chair and coat-stand, and lasts barely 50 minutes.
Yet because Barry McGovern’s version of Watt takes us straight into communion with one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, it never seems even for a moment to lack weight or ambition. Selected and adapted by McGovern himself, from Samuel Beckett’s much longer 1940’s novel, the monologue offers a brief account of the last chapter in the life of Watt, an old and poverty-stricken man who leaves the city for a large house in the country, where he briefly becomes a servant to a man called Knott.
Like an inspired form of stand-up comedy, Beckett’s narrative takes the tiny and sometimes squalid details of Watt’s life and thought, and by casting a sideways light on them, creates a narrative that is both profoundly comic and absolutely tragic. Watt is probably dying, certainly failing; but he still remains obsessive about details of language, and teased beyond endurance by the fact that when nothing happens – as it often does – he can only describe it by talking as if that nothing is, itself, an event. The text is immaculate; there simply is no other writer who eyes the compulsive busy-ness of the human mind, even on the brink of oblivion, with such a sharp and kindly gaze. And McGovern’s superb performance, directed by Tom Creed, is beyond perfection, effortlessly filling the Lyceum space with a theatrical energy both intense and relaxed; and as wise, wry, spare, witty and beautiful as the mind of the playwright himself.
Until 14 August
EIF p. 11
4 stars ****
Lowland Hall, Ingliston
IN A SENSE, we are all familiar with images of death in recent wars across the Middle East; of people shot by snipers in narrow streets between white walls, or bayoneted to oblivion in small concrete rooms where sharp sunlight seeps through shuttered windows.
It is a shock to the system, though, to walk into the transformed Lowland Hall at Ingliston, and see that streetscape realised before our eyes, in the huge set for TR Warszawa’s massive contemporary response to the most widely-performed of all Shakespeare’s plays. The scale of the set – like a Beirut urban fortress on three floors – is so vast that in many ways, Gregor Jarzyna’s production ceases to be live theatre, and becomes a kind of i-max installation experience with moments of heavily-miked live performance; if we want to see the actor’s faces with any clarity, we have to wait for the moments when their live close-up images are projected onto the walls of the set.
As an interpretation of the play, Jarzyna’s Macbeth makes two points with great clarity; that the world of hi-tech modern warfare is still full of warlords like Macbeth, and that men who are praised for ruthless killing in war – even when, as in Jarzyna’s opening scene, it involves blasphemy and war-crime – are unlikely to find it easy to stop once the battle is over.
Apart from that, its approach to the play – not helped by English surtitles that mix the original text with flat naturalistic banalities – is unsubtle, and sometimes crude. It reduces Lady Macbeth to a vulgar housewife, is oddly bereft (despite Shakespeare’s magnificent poetry on the subject, all cut here) of a wider sense of Macbeth’s impact on the territory he rules, makes very little of the colonising aspect of his final defeat, and never develops the strange presence on stage of a rabbit-like court jester, and a sinister magician. The final impression is of an not-entirely-successful experiment in the idea of Shakespeare as spectacle, backed by resources so vast that some crucial decisions about meaning and focus have been avoided; yet if the end result has its limitations, the spectacle itself is breathtaking, transforming, and unforgettable.
Untl 15 August
EIF p. 7