Ever pushing gently at the boundaries of what puppetry can and can’t do, the Little Angel Theatre’s latest challenge is a puppet adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best known and bloodiest plays, opening this year’s SUSPENSE Festival of Puppetry. Challenge is the right word, as this is no easy feat to pull off, but somehow, with typical tenacity, the Little Angel just about manages it.
At the centre of this pruned-down reimagining of the play is a concept that casts all of Shakespeare’s characters as birds. The rank-climbing Macbeth is a proud cockerel, as are Banquo and Macduff, with Lady Macbeth as a preening chicken; King Duncan and his sons have been transformed into regal swans; the witches are recast as ethereal yet vicious carrion birds. Unexpectedly, this choice is borne out by the text, in which mentions of crows and other feathered creatures suddenly leap from the dialogue. There is also something in the pecking of the chicken and the swooping of the vulture that seems oddly appropriate for Shakespeare’s tragic portrait of grasping ambition, which comes across as all the more mean and ridiculous as a result.
Perhaps unavoidably, director Peter Glanville’s production is at its most successful when visual language dominates, flagging a little during the wordier sequences. It’s challenging to keep a soliloquy engaging when it spouts from the mouth of a puppet – even Lyndie Wright’s brilliantly animated designs can only suggest so much expression. The decision to use a pre-recorded soundtrack, however, is a canny as well as a practical one, adding an aptly unsettling sense of disembodiment to the dialogue that is at its most powerful during Macbeth’s encounters with the genuinely chilling witches.
In the captivating wordless scenes, the usual enchantment of the Little Angel’s offerings is swapped for an altogether more haunting variety of magic. In one spellbinding sequence, a doomed King Duncan is offered the graceful illusion of flight, while in another a battle is suddenly transformed into a thrilling, feather-shedding cock fight. The dark atmosphere, reflected in Peter O’Rourke’s gloomy set design, is also aided by James Hesford’s original score of ominous melodies and discordant notes.
Wright’s colourful array of beautifully crafted puppets are all operated by skilled puppeteers Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James, dressed from head to toe in black. Rather than disappearing behind their puppets, these three figures take on a sinister significance within the performance, hovering omnisciently over the action like the circling witches and unceremoniously disposing of the mounting corpses. Playing with the manipulation that is a necessary ingredient in puppetry, this production delicately draws out themes of fate and pre-destination, leaving us in no doubt about the unseen hands guiding the action.