William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth is traditionally thought to be cursed by the theatrical community; so much so that actors rehearsing it refer to the show dare not even speak its name. Instead, often those rehearsing it choose to refer to it as The Scottish Play. Despite theatrical superstitions, the play continues to be immensely popular. A survey run by YouGov in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death found that Macbeth is the second most popular Shakespeare play amongst Britons after Romeo and Juliet.
I, for one, have been unlucky in the productions I’ve seen of Macbeth. In particular, the National Theatre’s production last year directed by new Artistic Director Rufus Norris and starring Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff proved disappointing. Yet despite this, I have been left with the sense that this play contains a remarkable central relationship in the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and have also come to develop serious affection for the brilliance of its language. On hearing that Collarbone Productions were bringing the play to the Burton Taylor Studio this term, I was intrigued to see the results.
Shakespeare’s play follows Scottish military hero Macbeth’s (Harry Berry) quest for power. Macbeth conspires with his wife (Lola Beal) to kill King Duncan (William Atkinson) and ascend the throne. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are subsequently plagued with guilt, and their circumstances spiral further and further out of control.
Berry and Beal provide impressive central performances. Berry chooses to highlight the titular character’s immense paranoia, and the convincingness of this interpretation is illustrated by the fact that one of the production’s most effective scenes is that in which Macbeth hallucinates a series of ghosts. Beal speaks Shakespeare with a distinct confidence that is not often found amongst university students – crucially, Beal consistently finds meaning in Shakespeare’s too-often perplexing language. The strongest scenes in the production often proved to be duologue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, perhaps because this represents the play’s best writing, or rather because the two actors appeared to be in sync.
Most compelling were the discussions of masculinity brought up by the two central characters, with Macbeth declaring of his wife and her character: ‘Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.’ The play reconstructs Lady Macbeth as traditionally male; she orders her husband to do the ‘deed,’ or kill King Duncan, and later criticises her guilt-wracked husband, demanding: ‘Are you a man?’ The inversion of the male-female gender roles in this central relationship complicates traditional conceptions of manhood, womanhood and marriage, and provides for a potentially engaging theatrical experience. Yet, crucially, these themes were not pushed nearly far enough by the production. Even though it might be a pedantic point, I am a bit sick of seeing a Shakespearean heroine descend into madness barefoot and clothed in a near-virginal white dress, and despite Beal’s convincing performance I would have liked to have seen an interpretation of Lady Macbeth wherein the actor is permitted to emphasise the character’s capacity for ugliness.
As a whole, a significant problem with the production lay with the decision made to set the play in a vague ‘jungle’ context. The results were a confused mix of colonial meets modern day warfare– Ross (Lucy Mae Humphries) was wearing a pith helmet throughout whilst a majority of the cast wore generally camouflaged clothing. The setting was further confused when the Porter/Doctor (William Atkinson) came out wearing pyjamas and fluffy slippers, presumably to add a comedic element, but ultimately falling flat and contributing to a sense that the production’s aesthetic was a bit of an afterthought. Whilst I admire the creativity behind desires to adjust the context of classical texts such as this, I very strongly feel that if a production is to adopt a particular context it needs to be justified and crucially, consistent. Although it is possible to argue that the ‘jungle’ context provided more potential for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s subsequent isolation and paranoia following the murder of Duncan, ultimately I feel that the production became bogged down by the adjusted context. A simpler, more streamlined modern military aesthetic, for example, would have proved more effective.
Another major issue with Collarbone Productions’ Macbeth was the fact that a large amount of the play was cut. Although I admire the panache of putting on a mega-play like Macbeth in a one and half hour slot at the BT, the cuts meant that a significant amount of the play was excluded. As a result, the final product was largely made up of a series of soliloquies, becoming a collection of internal monologues by which the group dynamics and crucially, hierarchies. were lost. Consequently, I left the play feeling as if I wasn’t as invested in Macbeth’s rise and fall as I should have been.
Putting Shakespeare on in Oxford is certainly no mean feat, and Collarbone Productions’ Macbeth displays some impressive performances. Yet, with a confused context readjustment, in addition to the text suffering as a result of script cuts, this production ultimately failed to win me over.