18 September 2019.
Royal Exchange, Manchester.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me?“. Well, yes and no, but I definitely see a red balloon, and a bloke in a bear costume at a banquet, and someone munching crisps loudly on the front row. Christopher Haydon’s Macbeth is certainly surprising, often visually arresting, and busy with ideas.
While the programme notes make much of the casting of a woman in the title role, Haydon may perhaps have underestimated his audience. After performances such as Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at the Exchange, and Golda Rosheuvel’s Othello at the Everyman, is it really such a stretch to believe in Lucy Ellinson as Macbeth? While certain passages referencing gender stereotypes are deliberately left unchanged, it’s mostly just a case of amended pronouns. In the end, it actually feels like one of the least interesting things about the production, especially as having made the gender switch they seem uncertain as to how to flesh it out in the wider context of Macbeth’s relationships and power struggles.
As Macbeth, Ellinson is very watchable, making sense of the transition from wide-eyed heroics to power-hungry thuggery with a restless, questioning performance that veers between bullish bravado and quiet-voiced doubt. Tears well up in her eyes when she goes into battle with her inner thoughts. There’s less opportunity for Ony Uhiara to map out Lady Macbeth’s emotional journey but she offers up one of the play’s stand-out moments when, as she calls out to be ‘unsexed’, she takes great pleasure in admiring her transformation in an imaginary mirror held up to her soul.
For a play about kings, ladies and castles, there’s little standing on ceremony, things can even get quite informal. Macbeth addresses “thou marvellest at my words” straight to the audience, and other characters seem keen to involve us more directly in their business. Occasionally you might find yourself caught in the sights of a gun, or being stared out by a witch. Though the arrival of Rachel Denning’s Porter takes things to another level as the house lights go up, and individuals find themselves singled out, and threatened with the gates of hell, for crimes against contemporary society (things such as property development, online marketing or even [if I heard correctly] just being Morrissey).
Faces are often concealed behind masks, there’s a silencing finger placed on lips, and a clamour of whispering voices seem to emerge from within the ominously discordant rhythms of Elena Peña’s highly evocative sound design. There’s a stifling sense of conspiracy, secrecy and deception. But also of something other-worldly.
Macbeth doesn’t just hear the witches premonitions, at one point she is violently possessed by them, speaking their prophetic words herself. The three ‘Weird Sisters’ are all wicked smiles and jagged movements, as they haunt the show’s first half. Dirt-streaked and zombie-like they set Macbeth off on her road to ruin, only to reappear, stony-faced in sleek outfits, as sinister servants within the Macbeth household – constant silent reminders of the couple’s malicious intentions.
There’s something ridiculous though about the witches and they play up to it, milking their extremes of behaviour for laughs (even though you suspect that they’ll have the last one). Dark humour smears itself across the production. Two hired assassins comically struggle with the social niceties of a meeting with the powerful Macbeth, while the Macbeths’ murderous plotting is farcically interrupted by a servant carrying a huge gateau across the stage. It’s disruptive humour, confounding expectations and designed to make us uncomfortable, complicit even, with the murky morals of Macbeth-world.
The pomp and ceremony of their lives is depicted in bold vivid strokes. Designer Oli Townsend clothes the court in beautifully-cut opulent fabrics – in shimmering silver, and deep red mixed with black and white. While the banquet, at which Banquo reappears, is reimagined as a lavish hedonistic children’s party, nightmarishly awash with day-glo coloured patisserie, shiny balloons and carnival costumes. A macabre mix of musical chairs, confetti canons, and a ghost.
That the Macbeths’ downfall is portrayed as such a full-throttle, impossible-to-look-away car crash slightly skews things. As does the messy gallows humour. The men who are meant to save Scotland feel colourless and insipid in comparison. Although Macduff’s grief (depicted heart-wrenchingly by Paul Hickey) at the news of his family’s death momentarily adjusts the production’s moral compass, ultimately he, Duncan and Ross have all the charm and personality of a bunch of civil servants. They wither beneath the overbearing shadow that the production gifts the ‘instruments of darkness’.
With its striking set-pieces and refreshingly inventive perspectives, this Macbeth has much to admire and enjoy, however, its focus is too dispersed, and its tone erratic – far too often it feels as if it doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Images by Johan Persson