Watching Jon Gun Thor's brutal, uneven but very entertaining production of Macbeth, I was reminded of a wonderful moment in one of Lorrie Moore's short stories. A mother is telling a friend a story about raccoons that got trapped in the chimney of the family home. "We lit a fire knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead they caught fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead". The narrator's ten-year-old son has been listening and, "nods enthusiastically, looks pleased. He's heard the raccoon story before and likes it. Once again, it's been told right, with flames and gore".
I've seen three new production of Macbeth in just over a month. The first featured the protagonists as puppet birds, the second relocated the action to the City of London. But this production at the Arcola, though it apparently draws on Norse myth, doesn't care much about context or settings; about political or poetic parallels. Instead this Macbeth is for those who just want the story "told right". Dark, bloody and mad, it features angry, scary people shouting at each other, hitting each other, setting fire to things, pouring fake blood out of gothic flagons and very occasionally accidentally slapping into their props at speeds that will make you wince.
Only Macbeth (Mark Ebulue) doesn't share mutliple roles and although Molly Gromadzki's Lady Macbeth is always easy to spot, as are the appearance of the witches (Norns in Norse Mythology are comparable to the Greek Fates since both are often depicted spinning the threads of fate), any novices to the play will be baffled by the identities of the rest of the cast and consequently by much of the action on this dark, bare set which uses few props or identifying costumes. And yet so committed is the acting, and rapid the storytelling (a single act of a little under a hundred minutes) that what would usually seem a series of pretentious miscalculations won't matter much to anyone familiar with the play.
Ebulue after a slightly slow start gives a performance of measured intensity, while Joseph Macnab, Ben Syder, the especially versatile Harry Napier and Alex Britton gives the leads selfless support but the star is Molly Gromadzki. As Lady Macbeth she gives a performance of cold unhinged fury wonderfully maintained and that never succumbs to manic cliché. Her final speech is extended well beyond its usual length into a sort of miniature masterclass. Since there's very little narrative purpose to this speech it also highlights the show's gothic priorities.
Jon Gun Thor's direction is more hit and miss. Though he has clearly given his actors the freedom and confidence to explore the limits of their range, there are a number of tonal missteps – literally, when Lady Macbeth puts on a record of what sounds like French lounge jazz, but also when the cast perform a scene with sacks over their heads, and throughout most of the bravura-heavy, but faintly ridiculous, fight scenes. It's also relentlessly humourless.
And yet there are inspired moment, including a brilliant Banquo's ghost scene. With the guests depicted as demons, Macbeth's mad visions are transformed into moments of insight, while Lady Macbeth's placations seem more like profane pacts. I don't know if this is entirely novel, but it is striking and typically well executed. For all the vulgarity and macho posturing, it is in these weird visions that this production stands apart from the standard fayre and why on balance it is well worth catching.