Macbeth? Really? As the last Everyman production before it gets razed to the ground (and rebuilt)? It seemed a brave choice. Is there an element of reverse psychology in there – a snoop cocked at theatrical superstition? A touch of hubris? An attempt to go on on as high a note as possible?
Perhaps Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon simply trusted their instincts. David Morrissey, a strong cast, the Scottish play. And why shouldn’t they? After seven excellent years at the head of the Everyman’s – and the Playhouse’s – direction, artistic or otherwise, they’ve had far more hits than misses and many of them gloriously so.
Even so, Macbeth is a steep challenge, not least because it’s so familiar. SevenStreets has seen many productions of Macbeth; people who live and breathe theatre have probably seen dozens. It’s not just the (over) familiarity; it’s the length, the traumatic angst; the imperative to do something not seen before or else completely ace it.
Just how familiar Macbeth is, as a text and a storyline, may only become apparent to someone watching it for the first time. It’s so quotable, so recognisable. So, has this made Macbeth a bit of a bore? How fast and loose can you play with Shakespeare? We’ve seen Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear of late introducing some novel elements to the E&P’s productions – what can we expect here?
Slightly surprisingly very little. Some inventive touches illustrate the lead character’s growing paranoia and his visions are shown to the audience on the big screen. Also impressive is a pool of bubbling, steaming liquid around which the weird sisters cackle; above are exposed cables and rusted iron. They’re touches that work well, but at the time we were hungry for more flourishes.
Upon reflection, however, the decision to allow the text to stand on its own merits and deliver a faithful production is probably the correct one. The cast rise to the occasion; there are no duff performances, though some are not as stellar as others.
Ken Bradshaw delivers a superlative Banquo, his command of the text seems effortless yet there’s something about it that gives a nod to the modern audience too; the sort of acting that looks so easy yet eludes so many. Matthew Flynn’s Macduff – a reflection of Macbeth – is believably driven.
Elsewhere Richard Bremner steals scenes as the porter in a part of the play that divides opinion on its meaning and importance. SevenStreets never cared for it, thinking it too off-kilter from the rest of the play, but Bremner gives it his all.
Eileen O’Brien is a delight to watch, always, and Nathan McMullen is interesting at every point he’s on stage in numerous roles, though the decision to have one of the witches played by a man reflects a slightly irritating development in theatre.
Mark Arend is a slightly Mandelsonian figure and he might have seen Martin Huston as Caesar in last year’s Antony and Cleopatra, such is his vaguely shifty Malcolm.
Julia Ford is a capable Lady Macbeth, hers a thankless task, stepping in three weeks ago after Jemma Redgrave withdrew, but at the heart of everything is David Morrissey as Macbeth who is, again, naturalistic and competent; showing good command of the text.
However, while we were prepared to be blown away, Morrissey never quite managed it. He looks the part, sounds the part yet it feels like it’s missing something.
By the end, audience members will feel like they’ve been through an emotional wringer. This is all blood, thunder, despair, madness, rain, cold and treachery; with nary a ray of sunlight. Shocking, visceral violence; nightmarishly sci-fi production values; a familiar yet unfamiliar setting, suggesting apocalypse. Even the porter scene feels macabre. At 150 minutes of screaming, crying and wailing it’s sometimes tough going, though eventually rewarding.
As with all Shakespeare, the themes will be familiar to us from 400 years of subsequent fiction. But they’re themes that stick with us because they’re so well observed.
Immediately afterwards we were unsure. Macbeth’s greatest hits was a phrase that swam, fleetingly and uncharitably, through the head. There is more to it than that – an Everyman stamp; a local stamp – on a all-time great; and what’s so bad about the best of Shakespeare anyway?
With Morrissey leading a fine cast and another excellent all-round effort form the Everyman team, Aydon and Bodinetz can feel satisfied they did it justice.
Everyman Theatre, Hope Street
To June 11