JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACBETH at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 24.1.15.
3 stars ***
WHEN IT COMES to Shakespeare, people in the UK tend to fall pretty clearly into one of two camps. There are those who know and love the plays, and therefore see no need to apologise for them; and there are those who think, for one reason or another, that they represent a problem – not as good as they’re cracked up to be, or in some way difficult, boring and inaccessible. There’s no doubt that the team behind the young London-based Filter Theatre – responsible for powerful recent music-led versions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – belong to the first group, as they explore and celebrate the potential of Shakespeare’s mighty stage poetry through a fierce synthesis of text, action and sound.
Yet what’s strange about their production of Macbeth, at the Citizens’s until 31 January, is that it still seems to fall somewhere between the two approaches, sometimes soaring to thrilling heights of inspired reinterpretation, but often lapsing into a kind of self-conscious bathos, as if terrified that – even in a short 85 minute version – Macbeth’s darkest tragedy will prove too much for the large numbers of school students in the audience.
So at the core of this production, delivered by a company of seven performer-musicians in ordinary jeans and rehearsal clothes, sits composer Tom Haines’s profoundly unsettling electronic music, delivered live on keyboards and laptops by a group of “witches” – three male, one female – who occupy centre stage, and conjure up strange and revealing responses to the play, and its many references to disturbing, shrieking sound. There is one mighty moment, for example, when, after an eerie sound-driven reinterpretation of Macbeth’s second visit to the witches, the four respond to his question about whether Banquo’s descendants will inherit the crown with a long and terrible shared laugh, that never seems to end.
Yet around this inspired central element of the show circle a series of performances that seem to vary wildly in the seriousness of their relationship with Shakespeare’s text, which is heavily cut, sometimes performed without much sense of pace, and sometimes – in some of its greatest moments – just mumbled away, or drowned out by the music. Poppy Miller’s Lady Macbeth adopts the method suburban, playing the the role for laughs like an ambitious sitcom wife; Ferdy Roberts’s Macbeth seems a shade off-hand, except at the strangely powerful moment when he picks up a copy of Brodie’s Notes – to roars of recognition from the audience – and learns how his story must end.
Yet Victoria Moseley’s Banquo is deadly serious, tightly-drawn and moving, as is Geoffrey Lumb’s Macduff. And although Roberts and Haines have said that they want to stop thinking of the play as a tragedy, and explore aspects of its comic potential, they should perhaps note that the production grips most strongly when it gives full value to the poetry, as well as to Haines’s brilliant sound; and recognises the truth that while Shakespeare’s vision contains elements of the absurd and grotesque, he is essentially dealing in nightmare here, and in the kind of horror-story that is not a spoof, but the real thing, bloody, bold, and chilling.