William Shakespeare
The Nomadic Players at Aberystwyth Castle

The Nomadic Players’ ambitious production of Macbeth, in the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle, is the first performance of any Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen in which actresses significantly outnumbered actors and this didn’t seem contrived. The concept, as realised by directors Carol Anne le Boutilier and Antonio Ferrara, is simple but potent: instead of a trio of witches, there is a crowd of twelve. They wear more or less identical black costumes.Vulture-like down sprouts from their gloved wrists, and their faces are covered with feathered masks. They move across the ruins and through the ranks of spectators with motions like those of birds, or insects, or rats, and the concept and choreography seem influenced by the recent university production of Doctor Faustus and by Cats. They come across more as harpies than witches.

They intervene in human affairs by replacing a host of minor characters in Macbeth’s story, making and unmaking kingdoms and lives without any of the human characters noticing. They’re fate, but they’re also human. Instead of futilely trying to answer the question of whether Macbeth and the other humans are responsible for their destiny, or if events are determined by the fates, this concept complicates it. The addition of a devil, with whom they congregate in a beautifully staged dumb show prefixed to the play, ties this to ideas about witchcraft that unfortunately prevailed at the time the play was written. Played by Tim Crossland-Page, this devil moves in a fluid and uncanny way, and his mask, decorated with two spirals of antlers, is a nice touch. In another added mime scene, his interaction with a desperate, suicidal Lady Macbeth (Jennifer Healy) is both appropriate to the action of the play and absolutely chilling.

The location is used well. Macbeth (Neil Jennings) and Banquo (Seun Babatola) make their first entrance striding up the hill from the far side, rising over the crest as they come into focus. The Nomadic Players also have remembered that this castle was not built to be a picturesque park, but a military installation, and they use the rocks, clearings, and hiding places appropriately in the battle scenes at the end. Music was also used well, particularly during the dumb scenes, although it could have been used more sparingly. Background music probably should not have been played during the “sound and fury” soliloquy, at least not music with lyrics.

However, there were some aspects of this ambitious production that need to be ironed out if the concept is repeated. Some of the actors were unable to speak both with believable emotion and loudly and clearly enough to be heard across the hilltop. Exploitation of the space’s potential for natural echoes was overdone. Requiring the audience to walk in circles around the site, following the actors was fun and has the potential to work really well, but it was very disruptive to constantly hear the dialogue interrupted by crew members telling spectators to move or to stay within the ring of stones. If spectators are drawn into the world of a play and they are not sitting in chairs or otherwise physically confined, they will forget the rules and move. Overhearing the stage manager calling cues was also distracting. However, I saw only the second performance of this production, and it is possible that the Nomadic Players hadn’t gotten to practice with a large audience, to see how the audience would react to their play, and maybe they have since sorted these minor problems.

On the whole, the performance works, and I heard many people saying great things about it as they left. The actors worked very well as a cohesive ensemble. Jennings and particularly Babatola played their roles exceptionally well, particularly in their speaking of the lines. The fact that, as far as I could tell, no spectators failed to return after the interval despite the very cold weather is probably a credit to the play. The Nomadic Players’ staging of the felling and removal of Birnam Wood was a really mesmerising, well-choreographed moment: swaying human trees are suddenly and brusquely transformed into a phalanx of almost robotic soldiers. So go see this unique Macbeth, but remember to bring a warm coat. You may have to ramble around the hill for two hours, but this fast-paced, engrossing production never does.

This review first appeared on Theatre in Wales

Reviewer: Rebecca Nesvet

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