Macbeth of Fire and Ice

William Shakespeare
Double Act Limited
Arcola Theatre

Mark Ebulue as Macbeth and Molly Gromadzki as Lady Macbeth Credit: Jon Thorgeir Kristjansson
Harry Napier as Chorus, Molly Gromadzki, as Witch of the Present, Alex Britton as Witch of the Future and Ben Syder as Witch of the Past Credit: Jon Thorgeir Kristjansson
Molly Gromadzki as Lady Macbeth, Alex Britton and Ben Syder as witches Credit: Jon Thorgeir Kristjansson

This is an Icelander’s interpretation of the Scottish Play that draws on Nordic traditions.

Director Jon Gun Thor sees the three witches, whom Macbeth calls “these weird sisters”, as Urðr, Verðandi and Skul, the Norns of Norse mythology who control men’s destinies or wyrd, goddesses like the classical fates. The idea was already there in the Holinshed history which was one of the sources Shakespeare drew on for the story, and he sets the play beneath the shimmering, tightly-stretched strands that radiate from their spinning wheel at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of the world.

Two of these “dark and midnight hags” are grotesquely masked and the third is recognisably as the actor playing Lady Macbeth, which may have intended significance. They rise from the ground around that wheel at the beginning of the play and when they disappear they crawl back into the depths.

This Lady Macbeth certainly has knowledge of witchcraft; when she cries “unsex me here” it is as part of a ritual begun by drawing a magic circle that leaves her stretched quivering on the earth. It is a reading that places the Macbeths and their ambitions with the old religion and against Christianity of cross-wearing King Duncan and those that follow him.

At one point, Macbeth invokes Thor, and a couple of other insertions explain the Norms and reference Norse mythology, but this is a text that has been boldly cut, eliminating almost all the minor characters, six actors sharing all the remaining roles between them. For 90 minutes without an interval, it drives dramatically onward with no time to indulge in a comic porter or flights of descriptive verse, but close-packed, essential action and the key soul-searching soliloquies.

This tale of murderous ambition and stern retribution is made intensely physical. Though Banquo may appear a bloody ghost among the witches’ apparitions, there are no swords or daggers; the violence is hand-to-hand brute strength. The characters’ muscled presences in black tank-tops and hooded training garb, prisoners’ and victims’ heads covered with sacks like tortured suspected terrorists, create a cruel, testosterone-driven world. Predatory, bird-like masks surround a guilt-weakened Macbeth, spilled wine is ghostly blood and an arc of fire seems to seal his fate.

Atmosphere is intensified by dramatic lighting, or lack of it, and by Harry Napier’s sound score, some of it played by him live, some prerecorded. As Duncan, he calls his lords together on a ram’s horn; as a blind seer, he takes over lines from lesser roles. Ben Syder, as Duncan’s son Malcolm, has the lithe build of the King, his father, but warriors Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff are solidly-built blokes: muscle-bulging Mark Ebulue, Joseph Macnab and martial arts trained Alex Britton.

Against the dark shapes of the men, Molly Gromadzki stands out as a red-robed Lady Macbeth. Hers is a powerful, pent-up performance of a woman who is driven, but, while her Lady Macbeth has a steely passion, she sometimes delivers lines more for emotion than for sense.

This applies to some of the male actors too, including Ebulue. As Macbeth, he often breaks the line, interrupting meaning, but he and his fellows have strong, rich voices which somewhat disguises any mishandling of the verse. Ebulue himself is only two years out of drama school; whatever its shortcomings he gives a creditable performance in a production which places its emphasis on visceral energies.

This Macbeth doesn’t employ thugs to do his dirty work. He’s a hands-on villain, snapping necks, yet he meets his end with a pistol shot. I am still trying to work out what director Thor is trying to say in that decision.

The logic of his production is not easy to decipher. Lady Macbeth, still in her red gown, becomes Hecate (this production retains parts of that role). Has Hecate perhaps previously been controlling her and now, deserts her allowing her (no longer in her red dress) to go mad?

But, forgetting any deeper meaning, this is a production that is physically arresting and theatrically imaginative.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton