My webcam on my laptop has been acting up since May. Every connection to a new meeting, a new catch-up, is preceded by several minutes of a completely frozen computer and my plea, “I hope it works.” It’s also the plea I have for any digital-driven, virtual theatre performance, since so much of these shows relies on computers, Wifi, cables, the power grid – a whole global infrastructure – to work. So the Big Telly Zoom-based production of Macbeth, featured as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, is a major test of interactive Zoom-theatre, and for the most part, it works.
The production is an hour and a half(ish) multi-camera, virtual and interactive performance of Macbeth, driven by the plot highlights which offer themselves to playful digital special effects. Director Zoe Seaton leans into the play’s spookiness with black and white horror film aesthetics. There are extreme close-ups of Macbeth (played with a stroke of Hamlet-esque madness by Dennis Herdman) and Lady Macbeth (performed by an equally mad but wickedly commanding Nicky Harley), focusing in on their eyes as they wildly prepare to murder King Duncan, while tense music overlays the characters’ asides and speeches. At times, Zoom acts as a stage, with everyone meant to be inhabiting the same virtual-physical space. Sometimes, it’s more like a TV, with special effects, close-ups and multi-camera use. At other times it’s more like a video call, with direct addresses to the viewer. This mixture of forms is a fascinating experiment that also calls back to the fun campiness of horror B-movies.
The production and its special effects shine most brightly at the play’s significant flash points – Macbeth’s coronation following his murder of Duncan, his banquet haunted by Banquo’s ghost, and his counsel with the wyrd sisters. A different cool, playful special effect is used for each of these scenes: if we waved at Macbeth as he rode by, our video was brought onto the “speaker” screen/mainstage; our faces were placed at seats at the gilded banquet table and we were invited to raise our glasses to him; and as Macbeth meets with the wyrd sisters in a grandiose theatre auditorium, we were placed in red velvet box seats. The witches also throw in some fun with green screens, summoning corgi videos into apparent mid-air, or donning stagehand outfits and running their own show from backstage.
With a cast of five impressively multi-tasking actors performing from their homes across London, Kent, Belfast and beyond, it’s clear that hard and constant work goes into running this production. The show runs from multiple accounts, including one just for sharing sound, and another “Hecate’s” account onto which all the special effects are compiled to create the full composite effect. To make the eerie encounter between Macbeth and Banquo’s ghost, for example, Macbeth stands in his own screen looking to the right, Banquo in his own screen sat looking left, and on the shared screen Hecate brings these two together into the banquet hall, with Banquo sat at the table and Macbeth standing beside him in fear.
It’s all impressive good fun, but not all of it works. There’s a conceit that the witches telling the story are malware which distorts reality; it’s an interesting one, but it’s not entirely followed through. The acting is at times overshadowed by all the effects. And the attempts to frame the story within the pandemic felt awkward; such as the prologue of MPs giving a news address, encouraging us to reduce our exposure to witches and to abandon all creativity. Although having a green tick mark appear next to my face is a neat trick, it didn’t feel appropriate to have us all “tested” for exposure to witches, as a parallel to having COVID-19.
Honestly, the show doesn’t need it because the production is inescapably part of the pandemic: all of the actors have never met each other and are performing from their bedrooms, and we the audience are brought onstage in our pyjamas by choosing to wave and raise a glass. The sheer magnitude of work required because of our isolation is very obvious, but in a way that justifies the production rather than detracts from it. It’s a playful antidote to the lack of in-person theatre in 2020, and an excellent starting vision of what virtual theatre can become.