Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Wyrd Sisters Theatre
Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Macbeth

According to its programme and pre-publicity, this production of the Scottish play is “set against the backdrop of a war-torn country to which the men mysteriously never returned. The women were convinced that they could prosper on their own.” It is described as “a collaboratively directed piece” in which “a female cast take on the dark and bloody nature of Macbeth.”

Now that is setting yourself quite a challenge and you have to congratulate this new young company for taking it on. Companies don’t just happen. Elsewhere I have seen Freya Alderson and Charlie Ryall (who play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) named as starting this one. The company is not entirely female: the three witches are played by men, seeming to give Macbeth telling them “You should be women” particular point, though to what purpose is not clear.

There is nothing in the performance to explain the all-female situation. There are some news cuttings referring to male losses and wanted notices for a male to father a child posted on the stairs leading up to the theatre, but since this venue rarely opens up the house until just before the performance few people will have had a chance to read them.

It would usually be quite easy to change references to gender without upsetting the verse, but this production creates considerable confusion by retaining all the masculine names and pronouns when referring to Shakespeare’s male characters. People keep on saying he although the character is being played as she.

If this was simply a gender-blind production with women playing men there would be no problem but we are asked to see these as all women. They are played as such, that is the point of the production but that is continually contradicted by the text.

There is a stark but atmospheric set created from black bin bags that matches the muck-besmirched witches and suggests a world still in turmoil, but Shakespeare’s chunk of background briefing in the “bloody sergeant’s” report on the enemy’s defeat is gabbled and largely incoherent. It doesn’t help to establish Macbeth and Banquo as generals just off the battlefield. They look more like a couple of landgirls who have been having a tough time. It says a great deal for Alderson and Briony Rawle that they rapidly establish their characters as Macbeth and Banquo.

In contrast to her generals, Olga Leon’s King Duncan is a prissy ruler, so snooty towards everyone else, I am surprised no one has murdered her already and her daughters with their boys’ names look like growing up just like her.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a female partnership adds an interesting layer of interpretation. Though they kiss on greeting, Charlie Ryall’s lady is an unemotional, never-smiling character, pasty-faced and perhaps unwell but that does not make her any less demanding. At first, Freya Alderson’s Macbeth is very open and honest. However strong the ideas that the witches have put in her head, there is a genuine revulsion against them. You realise this is a young woman trying hard to play butch husband to please the possibly older woman and not finding such masculinity easy. “Now, I am a man again” is one occasion when the unchanged text matches her meaning.

Her sex also gives an added poignancy to the restraint that Nathalie Barclay’s Macduff shows on hearing of the murder of her wife and children (which of them bore them I wonder and who was the donor? The production ignores these sort of issues). Anger comes later and Barclay’s Macduff is full of fury at “Turn hellhound, turn” which launches an exciting and original hand-to-hand fight.

In theatre as close up as this, details become very significant. Why do these women have no swords or guns but fight and do their killing with what look like kitchen knives? Why do two of them have artificial nails on one hand only? If the emphasis had not been on being women, perhaps I might not have noticed.

Mark Rush, Henry Bays and Alexander Allin are especially effective witches. They have no cauldron but chant their incantations as they quaff a potion which is then forced on Macbeth. They have bare feet and so too does Lady Macbeth. Is this to link them? Do they control her? That certainly seems the case since the witches, with the same clothes and dirty faces, appear around her as her servants—but then Hannah Cheetham’s gentle Lady Macduff appears with bare feet too; she can’t be a party to their activities surely. Nor does a witch as the Macbeths’ castle gatekeeper, especially in this grim setting, help that speech work as comic turn.

There is inequality in ability in this cast with excellent delivery from Alderson and Rawle’s stalwart Banquo but some of them take the text too fast for comprehension and occasionally forget the audience needs to hear them. That problem may be aggravated by having no designated director who might also have looked hard at the logic and justification of this interpretation to clear up anomalies, impose a little more stillness on those actors who wander around the stage to busy themselves centre stage when attention should be on what’s happening elsewhere.

This is an interesting experiment with some fine moments but needs a lot more thought to make its concept work.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton