‘You untie the winds and let them fight […] Confound and swallow navigation up’ Act IV, Scene I, Macbeth
Troubadour Stageworks has obtained a church and its crypt to stage a seven-person performance of Macbeth in a true gothic fashion. Make no error - this is not a blue-jeaned Banquo on a minimalist-industrial stage: this is candlelit, costumed, big-metal-daggered Shakespeare. (Live!) organ music opens the show and the scene is set excellently for a play that stays true to a classic telling of Macbeth, but which sometimes feels rough around the edges.
Troubadour have ambitiously reworked and moved scenes from one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. They cut the play to its bare bones, ending up with a focused story, honing in on interactions between the core characters - apart from the three witches. In Shakespeare’s original text, the witches only briefly appear to give Macbeth their prophecies, but director Mingma Hughes has developed them into omnipresent and sinister figures that oversee Macbeth’s rise and fall. The witches also take up the mantle of playing all of the minor characters, the implication being that the witches are directly manipulating the story. It’s a clever way of utilising the small cast, and, symbolically, this demonstrates the haunting of Macbeth by the otherworldly creatures very neatly. However, this ambitious scheme takes a while to comprehend: it is not overtly obvious the whole way through the play whether certain characters are playing minor parts or whether they are a “witch in disguise”. Slightly more variation in performances, and perhaps costuming, would be helpful to keep things clear in this respect.
Lady Macbeth’s speeches in Act I scene V (“The crow himself is hoarse”) and Act V scene 1 (“Out, damned spot!”), and Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act II scene I (“Is this a dagger..?”), are all reframed so that the witches interact with the play’s protagonists, acting as literal representations of their madness, which gradually takes hold of the ambitious couple. This is an adventurous and inspired adaptation, although, occasionally, the tone becomes inconsistent with tense moments of conflict being punctuated by halloween-cartoon cackles and robes.
The cast is minimal but forms a cohesive and focused unit. The interactions between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are notably good: cruel and exciting, the tensions and complexity of the relationship are laid bare. Banquo, played at times almost like a cheeky-chappy straight out of Danny Dyer’s repertoire, is also a joy. The actors do well to work in the unusual and confined space, and they even throw in a sword fight or two for good measure. Some characters in the latter half of the performance feel flat, however, leading to an over-reliance on theatrical screaming or shouting which dulls the otherwise well-established tension somewhat.
While the first half of the play is strong, focus falls in the second, particularly after a bizarre seating rearrangement which serves little purpose. The church, which is only used for Act III scene 4 (the feast with Banquo’s ghost), is awkward, featuring many a stiff neck from the need to turn one’s head, and the space is too echoey to clearly discern all of the dialogue. Back in the crypt, the scenes begin to feel rushed and the tension starts to dwindle. Much of this is redeemed, however, when Macbeth delivers a very measured and rousing speech in Act V scene 5 (“Life’s but a walking shadow”). But by the time the swords come out (if you can see them from where you are sat) and the actors awkwardly wrestle with the staging, you feel the performance has run its course.
All in all, this is a collection of very competent actors with a bold vision; the play is not a mess but is messy. The gothic atmosphere is exciting, and the tone is ambitious but sometimes falls short; perhaps the fledgling company are not yet confident in building a slower, eerier pace. The byzantine staging in the second half makes life more difficult than it needs to be for the cast; however I suspect that more interesting performances will come from this. With a little more preparation, this could be a performance that could become, like a dagger, sharp and focused — it certainly has the talent and resources. For the time being, the dagger is more illusory.