'I dare do all that may become a man: who dares do more is none' Act I, Scene VII, Macbeth
During the usual awkward, apology-filled struggle of returning to a seat after the interval, I get talking to a couple of audience members. ‘What do you think of the floor?’ one of them asks. I aim for a thought provoking response and end up with: ‘yeah, it’s alright’. (Insider information: the director wants you to walk on it so you feel immersed). The floor in discussion has been created for the Tobacco Factory’s new run of Macbeth: it is a black uneven surface, a rubble of rubber tarmac which covers the whole in-the-round space, across which the audience have to walk to get to their seats. Aside from the added difficulty of getting to one’s seat, this is actually a pretty cool idea; the audience are truly brought into the chaotic world of the dark heath that the Weird women inhabit. In the centre of the stage is a bright cube, emitting light and half buried by the rubble. All lights are off except the cube, which then flickers and suddenly cuts to black. Enter: the weird sisters speaking completely in Gaelic, but for the name Macbeth, and then a panic stricken bloodied soldier, who stumbles around telling all he needs to and then promptly dies. It is clear from the very outset that director Adele Thomas wants the production to be immersive and chaotic. Chaotic the piece is, but throughout its two and a half hour runtime, there is always something or other that prevents the production from being the immersive tour de force that it aims to be.
The performances, for the most part, are solid- if not great. The real stand out is Katy Stephens’ scene-stealing performance of Lady Macbeth. She plays one of Shakespeare’s most iconic women with depth and humanity, with particular emphasis placed upon her role as grieving mother. Stephens uses the small stage to her advantage, portraying Lady Mabeth’s descent into neurosis through a mixture of subtle and extreme physicality. Acting with control and energy, she brings the best out of her peers on stage and particularly - perhaps worryingly so - out of Jonathan McGuinness (Macbeth). Their portrayals thrust the passion of the relationship between the two character to the forefront, creating an intensity often lost among the other interesting power dynamics of the text. Aaron Anthony, too, is a splendid Banquo and like Stephens places an emphasis on the domestic; his relationship with son, Fleance (Benjamin Pleat) is warm and believable.
The real stars of the show, however, are the lighting, staging and sound designers. They allow for the chaotic world of Macbeth to really come out. Lights flicker and flood lights switch on, with the buzzing of lights and flies to match. Elsewhere an ambient low soundscape plays, giving a sense of a sinister restlessness. The costume designers do a great job of making the supernatural and evil supporting characters seem genuinely terrifying. White half-transparent pieces of cloth cover the faces of the witches while the rest of their bodies are covered in plain white dresses, creating more than a slight sense of the uncanny. The dead-pan murderers, meanwhile, are given an unsettling unopened duffel bag, leaving the audience to question what dark devices it contains. The disturbing ambience that these characters produce is made more pronounced by the performances of the actors. There is a sense of stillness to them, which, in amongst the strong, panic stricken actions of the other performers, creates unease.
It’s at this point that my feelings towards the production become a bit more mixed. The pacing in the second half of the play struggles and at times, in major speeches, an utterly bizarre approach to tone is given. Sometimes, too, important lines are given a throwaway kind of treatment and while McGuinness performs one of Shakespeare’s most hilarious lines - 'twas a rough night’ -with excellence, elsewhere lines are comedic when they shouldn’t be and some comedic performances aren’t as funny as they should be. The porter scene reads as dark rather than a lighthearted break before the action continues and when one of the dead-pan murderers announces ‘the queen is dead, my lord’, it results in laughter, numbing what is meant to be a poignant and pinnacle moment in the play. Of course, I understand that the removal of comedy in the porter scene was meant to help keep the audience immersed, but instead the scene becomes jarring and the effect felt is the reverse.
Jarring, too, are some of the choices made with the sound and staging. The choice to quickly change the lights whenever Macbeth has an aside works well when there are long moments between them, but at times the space between is as little as a line or two and this leaves the moments feeling awkward. This is also yet another production of Shakespeare whose costume designers opted to have the soldiers dressed in modernised uniform. Of course, Macbeth’s political instability aligns with prominent leaders in modern politics, but the choice to make the characters, most of which are soldiers, wear modern military garments doesn’t really seem to signify anything - to misquote Macbeth . This modern flavour clashes with the actors who jump around with Elizabethan daggers in hand. The use of the bright cube to link all of the supernatural events together also feels too tidy for a production that is seemingly aiming to immerse the audience in an expansive world of chaos. The set - ie. the now infamous rubble floor - despite being imaginative, is somewhat less practical, resulting in the high-heeled actors stumbling and tripping.
This isn’t to say that the Tobacco Theatre’s production of Macbeth isn’t enjoyable; it certainly is. The play is tense, visceral and imaginative, but there are too many inconsistencies, too many clashes to make the performance as deep or immersive as it strives to be. Perhaps my feelings towards the production are best exemplified in my thoughts upon exiting the theatre. As I stumbled over the unsteady ground of the stage space, I couldn’t help but wonder why, in a play often titled ‘the Scottish Play’, only one of the characters had a Scottish accent, while the rest did not. This question, like the ghost of Banquo, still haunts me.