This modern take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth is fast-paced with focused energy and thought-provoking choices. With a small cast, who doubled up for many roles, and minimal scenery, The New London Company has pared down the spectacle to present a fresh and dynamic production of the infamous Scottish play.
For those who are not familiar with the plot, Macbeth is the story of an ambitious nobleman who is greeted by three ‘weird sisters’ when returning home from war. They prophecize that Macbeth will become King. When he writes to his wife of this strange encounter, Lady Macbeth pushes her husband into killing the current king, Duncan, when he sups at their home. Fearing rebellion, Duncan’s sons (in this production son) flee and Macbeth takes over the throne, only to be plagued by the witches’ other prophecy that the offspring of his friend Banquo will become kings. He hires assassins to murder Banquo and subsequently, is greeted by his ghost at his own dinner table. As Macbeth becomes more restless about his position and consults the weird sisters, Lady Macbeth becomes mad, sleep-walking through the castle at night. Macbeth’s enemies take advantage of the new king’s greedy preoccupations and attack. Macbeth is abandoned by his half-hearted supporters but fears no one since the witches told him no man ‘of woman born’ can harm him, that is until he meets Macduff who was lucky enough to be born by ceasarian.
The theatre atop the Lion and Unicorn’s cozy pub is arranged in traverse seating, so that the audience peers at each other across the small rectangular playing space. The actors do a brilliant job of sharing their face with both sides of the audience. The play has been cut down to two hours with a ten-minute interval, and the action moves swiftly, forcing us to watch riveted in their galloping pace. The entire cast delivers their lines with incredible diction, so we don’t miss a word. It ends how it begins, with two adversaries eyeing each other across a wooden table to play a poignant game of Russian roulette. The witches are a woman (Tamara Astor) and two men (Simon Grujich and Kieran Sims) in dresses and wigs, flouncing across the stage in breathless humour, introducing comedy to this otherwise tragic play. Other comic moments are given to Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting (also Tamora Astor) who struggles with Duncan (Albert Clack) and his entourage’s suitcases and introduces knock-knock jokes to the character of the porter. Duncan is brilliantly portrayed by Albert Clack who’s commanding voice resonates inside the theatre. Ben Kavanagh’s Macbeth is at first played with just the right amount of hope and bewilderment. His downward slope is presented well, but without empathy. Natasha McClure’s Lady Macbeth is subtle, low and soft, playing the ‘unsex me here’ speech straight and without hyperbole. The relationship between the Macbeths was convincing, but lacked spark. Perhaps the fast-pace of the production gave little time for the audience to become affected by these characters’ journey. Although I was deeply moved by Kieran Sims’ performance of Macduff when he reacts to the news of his family’s slaughter. With wet red eyes and the twitch of his cheeks, we are immediately on his side. This may be what director Scott Ellis had in mind. After all, it’s difficult to like Macbeth once he starts plotting his friend’s murder.
Besides chance symbolized as a game of Russian roulette, other interesting choices were staging Macbeth’s dinner as a fancy dress party with Banquo disguised in the notorious Scream murderer costume, and Macbeth dressed as a clown (which for me was creepily reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s mad Joker in The Dark Knight). Also, the choice to represent Hecate’s speech and the further premonitions through a séance with demonic possession by the weird sisters was certainly chilling. The lighting was simple, with a few red lights for hellish encounters, and very low lighting when Macbeth kills the king. The military uniforms for this modern production worked well, although I would have liked some bling on Macbeth once he takes over the throne. There wasn’t much of a noticeable transition to this stage.
In conclusion, although this production needed some slower scenes to grapple with the complexity of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s downward spiral, overall it was thrilling to watch with a professional cast and enough versatility to make the audience think.