William Shakespeare
The Faction
Wilton's Music Hall

Sophie Spreadbury (Bellona) Credit: Christa Holka
Christopher York (Macbeth) Credit: Christa Holka
Sophie Spreadbury (Bellona) Credit: Christa Holka

“This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee.” So, Macbeth writes to his wife, informing her of the prophetic salutation of the “weird sisters”: “Hail, king that shalt be!”

In his attempt to realise this supernatural divination, Macbeth is aided, advised and implored by Lady Macbeth, whose tragic career parallels and is a counterpoise to his own. The tension between the couple’s potential for human fulfilment and their social- and self-destructiveness, as they become ever more isolated—from their community and, then, from each other—is what draws the audience to pity them, even as we are repulsed by their regicidal inhumanities.

This is the starting point for The Faction’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, which distils the action and presents it entirely from the perspective of the Macbeths themselves. So, there are no witches or warring thanes, no apparitions or assassins—though their words, even those of the Porter, are at times integrated into the condensed dialogue—just a husband and a wife, bound together, in the words of director Mark Leipacher, by “an unspeakable loss”, their ambitions, joys and pains indivisible.

There’s a problem with this narrowing of the play’s perspective, though. First, in Shakespeare’s play the murderous pair become increasingly alienated from each other as their tragic trajectory unfolds. So, the first act has to do a lot of work here (projected captions signpost the scenes and summarise the action), as the partners-in-sin plot and scheme. And, the re-imagining of the later acts subverts the estrangement that Shakespeare dramatises, bringing Bellona, as she is so-named, and Macbeth together even as Shakespeare pushes them apart, into nocturnal hallucination or existential despair respectively.

Then, the play’s juxtaposition of the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural’ is erased by the removal of the supernatural. And, the complexity of both motivation and characterisation is diminished as a result. There is some effective contrast between the public domains where Christopher York’s somewhat artless Macbeth revels in his manliness—though even the celebrations of victory in the opening battle reveal some hint of instability—and Bellona’s domestic sphere, which designer Sophia Simensky furnishes with table, telephone, lamp and cot.

The emptiness of the latter is the crux of The Faction’s reading of the play. The Macbeths are united and driven by the loss that such bareness symbolises. But, this makes a nonsense of Lady Macbeth’s taunting of her husband’s masculinity with the shocking assertion that she knows “[h]ow tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me”, but would “while it was smiling in my face,/ Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out”. And, such ‘unnaturalness’ is epitomised by her fear that his “nature” is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”.

Sophie Spreadbury, dressed in plum-coloured pyjamas and then Elizabethan farthingale, is a more sympathetic Lady Macbeth in the opening scenes than is often the case, excited by thoughts of power but not fuelled by the evil of the metaphysical “murd’ring ministers”. And, so, the central tension of the play is diffused: we don’t ask ourselves what is driving Macbeth to his doom, his own “vaulting ambition”, his wife’s gender-defying unnaturalness or supernatural devilry? There is little representation of the latter, although occasionally lighting (Zeynep Kepekli) and video offer some visual symbolism—the raven that flaps across an eerie moon is presumably the one that makes itself “hoarse” croaking “the fatal entrance of Duncan” under the Macbeths’ battlements?

The imagery is often quite clumsy or mundane. Macbeth wears a sheer, lace-embossed shirt, to suggest his effeminacy, I guess. Poppy-red streamers evoke the blood that “all great Neptune’s ocean” cannot wash from Macbeth’s hands (a porcelain bathtub is wheeled onstage to underline the point). The Macbeths smooch, don tartan and flourish champagne to welcome the thanes to their party.

Moreover, dramatic tension is weakened by the staging of events that take place offstage in Shakespeare’s play. So, we see Macbeth stab the pillow of the empty bed in which King Duncan sleeps. The murder of Banquo is represented by the vicious decapitation of a teddy bear, snatched from the aforementioned cot (later a chain of bears will symbolise the chain of heirs that threaten Macbeth’s kingship). Cue lurid lighting and the arrival of a Disney-style outsized bear which shoves Macbeth to the floor during the banquet. If audience members are laughing in this scene, something’s probably going a bit awry.

Looking through the Macbeths’ eyes is an intriguing concept: after all, for all their unnaturalness, Shakespeare’s duo display at that last some shred of humanity, and thus our pity. No matter how steeped in blood, they both retain some vision of a different, better life. And, they love each other. At Wilton’s, though, this Bonnie and Clyde double-act lacked tragic stature.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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