An Ulster-Scottish Play that neither boiled nor bubbled
OK, I've slept on it and let my annoyance subside slightly... but for the little it is worth, here's my opinion on the Lyric's current (until the 24th November) production of Macbeth... It's dull but not dreadful.
I suppose I was feeling a bit more vitriolic last night after because it is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and it is one of the most accessible and adaptable, yet the sheer lack of energy in last night's production was palpable. About 25% of the audience left at the interval... I watched as taxi after taxi pulled up at the door, and by that stage I felt like getting in my car and following them, but wanting my value for money I stayed. And I'm glad I did, because the best scenes and speeches were in the second half, but even they were not enough to stir me.
The pre-production publicity promised much, with its plastic-mac clad witches, and sub-way backdrop, and talk of the Northern Irish resonances, with bloody politics and dynastic ambition underpinned by superstition, using the witches to represent those women who throughout the troubles kept things going, for good or ill, while their men were away on murderous enterprises, locked away in prison, or in the grave.
There were hints of that in the production and certainly Eleanor Methven, Carol Moore and Claire Rafferty as the witches delivered their (expanded) roles with aplomb, but there was no real follow-through with the concept, and the transition of the staging from the pre-publicity urban environment to a time-less "Shakespeare world" probably didn't help to root that concept.
That said the split-level "basalt plateau" staging by Diana Ennis, hauntingly lit by Sinéad McKenna’s lighting design (providing some striking tableaux, especially the concluding one) was a work of art in itself, but curiously at odds with Parker's stated objective... The wardrobe was another matter, however, where I have to agree with Peter Crawley (Irish Times) who said waspishly:
"Ennis’s costumes aim for timelessness, but instead resemble a trawl through the wardrobe of Shakespearean productions past, from frock coats to leather trenchcoats, and – for the Macbeths’ ascent to the throne – what might be borrowings from the MS winter collection."
The witches clearly understood their lines and delivered them accordingly... I was less convinced of that with the other supporting characters however, especially Banquo, whose performance improved immensely after his death, when all he had to do was shake his gory locks. The abundance of blood on Banquo was ironic given the bloodless performances by most of the cast, and the sheer lack of physicality in any of the fight scenes. I can only assume that this was a deliberate decision on the part of the director, because it didn't just affect the minor characters, but the two leads who act like the twin foci of this drama.
Andrea Irvine, as Lady Macbeth, is an actress I have always liked, and she demonstrated her understanding of the text and her emotional power in the handwashing scene... but sadly that emotional intensity was absent from her earlier appearances and particularly from her relationship with Stuart Graham as her husband. There seemed to be little love shared between them, let alone real passion. The very picture of a middle aged married couple. Indeed everything seemed far too domestic. A dynastic drama reduced to the level of a kitchen-sink soap opera (although without the hysterics of an average episode of Eastenders).
The same was true of Stuart Graham's Macbeth. Others have suggested that he "excels" (Terry Blain on CultureNorthernIreland.org) and written of his "prominent physical stage presence (which occasionally borders on the overpowering)" (Peter McLoughlin on Queens University's student e-magazine The Gown), but I'm afraid I just didn't see it. Like Andrea and her handwashing scene, his "out brief candle" speech was delivered with a power and focus that showed what he was capable of, but it was a brief moment of lucidity in a helter-skelter descent into irredeemable madness that makes the character seem weak.There was little in his portrayal at the beginning which convinced me that this was an heroic leader of men, thus his all too swift conversion to anti-hero and thence to gibbering wreck wasn't a tragedy, until his anti-climactic death effectively summed up the whole play... Who cares?
Well, actually, I care. I care that all too often provincial theatres put on productions of plays on schools' exam curricula as a guaranteed income-generator, then effectively put young people off theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular with half-baked productions. My son, who hasn't a huge experience of Shakespeare, saw it last week and he and his peers almost unanimously thought it was awful. Half-way through last night's production something in Malcolm's performance (which had strange echoes of Cahal Daly in it that went beyond the cross hung around his neck) took me back to a 1985 production of Macbeth in the Lyric, with John Hewitt as Macbeth (and Linda Wray as Lady MacDuff I think) where I fulminated on the same subject in the pages of the short-lived and long defunct Scene magazine... To be fair, I think that production was much worse than last night's, as there was little meta-narrative to it, and it watched like a dramatised reading where the cast knew their lines, but nothing more. What was annoying about last night's production was that there was the potential for so much more.
I've managed to miss the recent lauded Macbeths in Belfast, be the the Polish production in the Clarendon Dock, involving witches on stilts and motorbike chases, the production in Crumlin Road Gaol, or the joint production of the Lyric with Prime Cut (also featuring the late John Hewitt) ten years ago now. I had hoped that, based on the pre-publicity that I was at last going to see a real "made in Belfast" production of Macbeth, and if there had been more follow-through on Parker's stated vision, coherence of concept and design, a better supporting cast and a bit more spirit that might have been the case.
But if I'm looking for that maybe I'll just have to go and watch the Educational Shakepeare Company's "Mickey B" again... a production which although performed by amateurs (amateur prison inmates in Maghaberry Prison) could never be accused of being bloodless.