The Euro 2016 football tournament has thus far been dominated by an unusually large amount of matches that have been transformed in the closing stages. The same could very much be said for Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth that just opened at the Globe.
Like many of the matches in France, a good half-to-three quarters of this production is characterised by a fluctuating mishmash of the sublime and the ridiculous. For every moment when the production descends into stodginess, there is another – often immediately following – where it involuntarily sucks your attention and faith back into the plot. As with watching someone hit the bar, this can be incredibly frustrating to witness.
The key example of this would be the use of live music and vocalists, which accompanies the performance. It is used first to voice the witches, whose bodies seethe and heave together as one mass, at once all disembodied limbs and one conjoined being. The bodiless vocals echo this dislocation between body and mind, making the oily, shape-shifting witches part of the landscape itself. Their existence and prophesies are as old as the heath and the heather; these ostracised and feared old women will always be present in one form or another.
However, the ethereal, slick sounds are only granted the shortest of moments to play out before being jarringly cut off. It’s like being a sailor hearing a mermaid singing from the rocks only for a seagull to caw in your ear at the vital moment and stop the lullaby brutally short. It contrasts particularly badly with the cringe-inducing party thrown to falsely welcome King Duncan (Sam Cox) to the Macbeths’ home. A naff “Where’s the Thane of Cawdor?” delivered in a voice usually reserved for enquiring after a human under the age of five, makes the monarch sound so goofy you expect that if Macbeth doesn’t murder him soon, he’ll probably precipitate his own demise tripping over some untied shoelaces.
The cheers and whistles to soundtrack a quick snog between Macbeth (Ray Fearon) and Lady Macbeth (Tara Fitzgerald) also feels somehow desperately cheesy. Indeed, the insistence on foregrounding the couple as being always two steps away from sex is unconvincing. In part this is because one of the virtues of Fitzgerald’s portrayal is her resolute cold-bloodedness. In her steely reptilianess there is nothing sensual about her at all. She is, after all, un-sexed. Thus making her a seductress doesn’t quite work. It also plays on an outdated assumption that Bad Girls (as in, the ones who get their husbands to murder people) will have high sex drives – that this is in some respect part of their transgression.
Following Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beginning of her inaugural season as the new Artistic Director at the Globe, the world of below-the-line comments went temporarily crazy (like, more than normal). The production offended people on a number of levels. First, it included amplified music and additional lighting out of keeping with the Elizabethan homage. Second, it swapped Helena for Helenus and depicted gay marriage. One of the most fantastically un-self aware responses genuinely pleaded that someone think of the children. Apart from the overt prejudice and stupidity in thinking that school children coming to the Globe would need to be in any way ‘protected’ from the depiction of gay marriage, this comment was also short-sighted in not recognising that younger generations are often more tolerant than those that came before them.
Kahn’s Macbeth latches onto this idea of hope in youth by including Macbeth’s young son. Throughout the play the small boy runs happily and haphazardly in and out of scenes. He is never introduced nor directly referred to and his presence is to begin with partially confusing. However, his small inclusion offers an interesting counterbalance to the rest of the performance. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of those plays that it is hard to suspend disbelief when watching due to how familiar it is. When watching a new production, one is often aware of watching a new production. You think about what Khan will do with the famous role of Lady Macbeth, and how Fearon will deliver: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”. And so it is that you watch the same cycle of greed, murder and madness repeat itself knowing that this is a set of events that repeat. Shakespeare didn’t make the cycle repeat, but the fact the play itself has been replayed so many time means it has taken on this secondary life of being stuck on repeat. Yet, in this production this isn’t quite the case as into this repeating circle of deceit and hate steps a new, young person. He is separate from the over-familiar events of old and he never speaks a word, just watches solemnly. In his newness is hinted the possibility of a linear narrative growing out of this old circle.
This is also a production suited to young people in a different way, because it owes much of its aesthetic to that of a teenage goth. Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting design juxtaposes the Globe’s timber structure with black metal, deep purple and red velvet. In keeping with the incessant return to 90s fashion as worn by many teenagers at the moment, Joan O’Clery’s costume design has Lady Macbeth in crushed velvet and sparkly black lace. We stop short of an actual black velvet choker, but there’s certainly more than a hint of Buffy in this Elizabethan replica theatre tonight.
But to return to how the play resembled a Euro 2016 football match. After the interval/halftime analysis of both concerns over parts of the first half and praise for other moments of expertise, events took a sudden turn. In case you weren’t getting bored enough with my tortured football analogy, it’s also possible to draw this out further and note that, as with many on-pitch moments, the on-stage events were predominantly saved thanks to one individual: Macduff.
Like Payet appearing from the depths of midfield to fire the ball home, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd catches those watching unaware as quite suddenly all action slows to focus on him. Of course, this in part down to Shakespeare’s script; Macduff does become the lynchpin of the narrative. However, it’s Fortune-Lloyd’s performance that really causes this shift. In contrast to Duncan acting the embarrassing uncle and Lady Macbeth making the skin crawl the more she entwines herself around her husband, Macduff encapsulates being no nonsense. Stalking across the Globe in solid army boots, Fortune-Lloyd states his intent as the one to clear up the mess the rest of the lesser mortals have made. His melodic voice both booms through the theatre and remains lyrically sweet in sound. Similarly, his sliding between bitter grief and vowing to suppress his tears in favour of bringing down Macbeth is the singularly most moving moment in the production.
Macduff’s winning moments on stage also coincide with the production coming together more generally. The Glastonbury crystals shop aesthetic is fully embraced; the music is more integrated and starts to sound like if the Sisters of Mercy did Shakespeare. And so we end on boot-stomping joy, happiness edged with ferocity. Good people emerge from amongst the carnage, a child sits waiting for his turn to change the world and, yes, the final result is almost enough to make you forgive the miss-hits that came first.
Macbeth is on until 1st October 2016. Click here for more information.