For all its aesthetic precision, De Oscuro’s Mac//Beth eludes formal categorisation: an intriguing (if not always consonant) concoction of theatre, dance, music and language, the production encompasses multiple mediums, its raw physicality the unifying characteristic between each.
A spellbinding string quartet accompanies, guiding us through landscapes foul and fair as the performers (it feels reductive to call them merely dancers or actors; they do so much more) navigate the charged themes integral to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: namely, the liminal territory between morality and transgression.
As a single-act production with just five performers, Mac//Beth is a far cry from traditional interpretations of its namesake play. Two members of the quintet – Gerald Tyler and Eddie Ladd – handle the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respectively, while the remaining three juggle the other characters between themselves, shifting seamlessly from witch to Malcolm, for example, and back again. A further divergence from custom sees the text relayed in four different languages: English, Welsh, Polish and Hebrew. For clarity’s sake, the majority of lines are in English, but Judith Roberts – who founded De Oscuro specifically to advocate multilingualism – allows characters to revert to their native tongue when particularly distressed, noting that this habit is “a common phenomena (sic)” in real life.
This feature engenders an engrossing exposé of characters’ motives, regardless of what their words or actions might otherwise suggest. Lady Macbeth’s infamous ‘unsex me’ speech, for instance, sees her spew the words in Welsh, trembling with duress and presumably unable to control her impulses, while her husband calmly repeats each line in English behind her; meanwhile, her initial puzzlement and subsequent hysteria upon learning about Duncan’s death is delivered in perfect English, a clever nod to her contrivance and blatant insincerity at that point. Of course, while the use of multiple languages is certainly an original tool for addressing the notions of power and duplicity the play explores, it’s hardly necessary: surely Shakespeare’s text has proven sufficiently trenchant in its own right by this point, no?
A constant whirlwind of scenic accoutrements bombards the production, from projections of ghostly faces onto shimmering panels hanging from the rafters to a rotating backdrop of videography that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lars Von Trier film. The latter produces a mixed effect: luminous shots of the misty Scottish moor brilliantly enhance the eerie mood, but these are regularly sullied by reels of painfully obvious figurative imagery (a raging snake accompanying Lady Macbeth’s scenes, a befuddled owl paired with Macbeth’s hallucinations). Coupled with the frequent oscillations between languages, these technical features do more to obscure the story than enhance it.
Purists, be warned: you won’t see any movement in this piece that betrays classical dance training; the terpsichore is all flexed feet and flung arms and seemingly half-hearted improvisation, with very little choreography performed in unison. Aside from the wonderfully dexterous Eddie Ladd, whose ferocity oozes from her every outstretched finger, the performers are largely restrained in their motion, and while it seems appropriate that they aren’t elevated to the status of ‘other’ (as classical ballet is wont to do with its practitioners), one can’t help but wonder whether a few doses of formal technique might amp up the quality. As it stands, the dancing in Mac//Beth lacks the dynamism and virtuosity befitting of its celebrated libretto.
The performance drags towards the end – an interval would have been welcome – but the fierce battle scene concluding the piece is worth the wait. Sound and fury indeed.