Simon Ward reviews The Tragedy of Macbeth at Southwark Playhouse.
Flabbergast Theatre have spent years working and re-working this noisy, exuberant, muscular and unnerving version of Shakespeare’s infamous Scottish play. Entering the auditorium is like stumbling onto the enactment of an ancient pagan ritual in a woodland clearing. Characters and words emerge from a seething mass of intertwined bodies as if under a shamanistic spell. It is as if the play is being performed to ward off the evil that it shows. Uncompromising in its physicality, the Shakespearean text is nevertheless largely preserved, although sometimes it is too noisy to catch all of it. That said, some of the setpiece speeches are rendered particularly effective – Macduff’s lament for his wife and children, Lady Macbeth’s mad scene, Macbeth’s ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ – when the frenetic activity pauses for a moment and the words speak for themselves.
The overall approach works brilliantly for this play, infused as it is so deeply with blood, lust, madness, horror and weird magic. As the actors writhe interwined they form one whole. When Macbeth and Banquo emerge they are recognisably from the same world as the witches – and hence are ready, even eager, to accept their prophecies. And, when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth eventually start to buckle under the weight of their guilt, part of the explanation for their crimes seems to be that they have moved too far away from the collective, mutually supportive world.
This is an ensemble piece in the best sense, with a group of performers who have complete trust in each other and who are utterly committed to the work. Performing Shakespeare always carries the weight of centuries – from interpreting the text to responding to the thousands of previous productions. It seems to me that this company have tried to take a stripped back approach and also, perhaps, tried to imagine a contemporary audience’s response to the original. Here we feel we inhabit a world where witches and prophecy are just as real as brutal murder, struggles for power and the challenges of kingship.
Someone completely new to the play might perhaps struggle to follow all the ins and outs of the plot – one of the drawbacks of the ensemble casting is that there cannot be elaborate visual signals of costume etc to identify the different characters. But, as often with Shakespeare, the main thrust is clear and the desperate struggle for the crown is vividly rendered.
The triumph of the piece belongs to the ensemble as a whole, but special mention should go to Henry Maynard, who directs as well as delivering a powerful performance as Macbeth, and Matej Matejka who directs some incredibly intricate movement, and Adam Clifford who arranged the music which is an integral part of the whole.
The Tragedy of Macbeth runs at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD until 8th April 2023
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