A ‘riveting performance’ of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy
It is astonishing to watch five actors playing 30 different roles give a complete and riveting performance of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. It was a fascinating exercise to see how they did it.
First, the physical stage. The audience was confronted with a row of plain wooden chairs on which the cast sat when they were not performing. All action took place centre stage with actors appearing and disappearing as necessary. There was no set and no director. This was a huge time saver because the five acts of Macbeth, normally two-and-a-half hours, were reduced to about an hour-and-a-half. Costume was suggested or minimal; the witches wore black ponchos. Lady Macbeth was in military-style khaki, which suggested her ruthlessness.
Second, the acting. Movement was hugely important because each actor played multiple roles which demanded different body languages. Banquo had to abandon the noble friend role to become “the Dunsinane porter”. Lady Macbeth had to transform to Malcolm’s son Fleance. King Duncan had to degenerate to “the second murderer”. All the actors moved economically, gracefully and used just enough gesture to support plot development, in particular the physical fights: the murder of Banquo in Act III and the final encounter of Macbeth with Macduff were true examples of the old phrase that a good actor can transform a wooden sword into the real thing.
Next, the words. As far as I could tell, the play was delivered complete with few or hardly any cuts. All actors were un-miked, clear and well projected. All were at home with Shakespearean language even when expressing the inexpressible — such as Macduff’s reaction to the murder of his family which ends in silence beyond words. For me, this was the most intense emotional moment of the play.
Finally, the non-verbal elements of the play made important contributions. The music, skilfully delivered on bodhran, autoharp and recorder, added genuine menace combined with a folkloric atmosphere. Anonymous and sinister knocking on the bodhran made a wonderful background to “the porter’s” gross phallic miming with bottle and broom; this scene is to me one of the most sinister of all in the play. The unanswered knocks and the porter taking the piss (literally) welcoming spirits into Hell like some St Peter avatar while King Duncan is being murdered made for huge dramatic tension.
The non-verbal element in the play added to its emotive depth. At the beginning we are given an unscripted glimpse of what might have been, an alternate reality where Macbeth could have taken a totally different path unsullied by the tragic flaw of ambition. Macbeth tenderly cradled a baby with his loving wife beside him while strips of blood-red ribbon were extracted from the baby’s covering and laid around him on the boards, a poignant and powerful symbol of “blood lines” and, by association, royal succession and domestic tragedy.
Macbeth was a wonderful display of the art of acting by master practitioners.
• William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was performed by Actors From The London Stage on Friday at the Ruth Seaton James Auditorium as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts