Thursday, 27 September 2007

Macbeth - Gielgud Theatre 2007

Gielgud Theatre, London, UK.

Transferring to The Gielgud Theatre in London after a sell-out run in Chichester, Rupert Goold's production of Macbeth is a chilling vision of bloody death and supernatural horror that far exceeds the frights of any modern horror movie.

From the start this play tries to inspire a sense of disquiet in the audience, by use of oppressive sound effects, flickering lights, and disturbing projections. The first half of the production builds suspense that reaches a climax just before the interval and leaves the audience gasping for the next twenty minutes. The second half then turns up the horror dial and throws in plenty of blood, paranoia, and some downright grisly images. The horror in Macbeth works on several levels: the supernatural (the witches), the tormenting inner demons of the imagination (Lady Macbeth’s dreams), and the cruelty and sacrilege of murder. Goold succeeds in bringing to the fore the true ghastliness of all.

The set is a white tiled subterranean room, with the only furniture a metal table and a large butler sink. It has a clinical air about it but with patches of damp and decay evident: it could be a hospital or a morgue (in turn it is both). A lift sits at the back of the room, the kind with sliding latticed doors that make an ominous groan every time they are opened or closed. Used as an entrance this apparatus serves to increase the tension as it descends; we can see it coming down but not who or what it brings with it. The set itself somehow creates a sense of uneasiness, of despair - perhaps because there is something of the slaughterhouse in all those white tiles.

Goold chooses to transpose the first two scenes of the play, so that scenes I and III run into one another, creating a bolder and more sinister first impression of the witches. Indeed the witches, when we meet them, turn out to be the three nurses who were a moment ago attending to a wounded sergeant. When Macbeth first comes upon them and wonders what they are, ruminating 'you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so' we see that they are wearing surgical masks pulled down over their chins. When they vanish, it is into the smoke of the elevator. Later on they are revealed as serving maids in Macbeth's own house, making much use of knives, beheading animals, stuffing chickens, carving meat - creating as bloody a show as if they were around a cauldron on a heath. The witches are a constant and unsettling presence throughout the play and one wonders if it is Macbeth's own imagination that interprets these innocent servants as witches or whether their presence is actually as real as Macbeth’s crime. The three apparitions they cause to appear to Macbeth are plastic-wrapped bodies in a morgue that the witches chant and gesticulate over, causing them to convulse, sit up and speak. The chant is fast and frantic with an irregular rhythm. Add to this projections of static, strobing lights, and pulsating music, and the scene becomes frantic and extremely disturbing. However the horror is not confined to the witches. The slaughter of Macduff's wife and children is shown in tableau under strobing lights and although brief is sickening to watch.

Set in the 1930s/40s, the restrained costumes and manners of the period sit in stark contrast with the dire deeds of the play. Blood seeps and flows in projected form across the walls as the witches huddle together pointing and hissing at Macbeth. The ghost of murdered Banquo appears at the formal dinner table with gashed neck and bloody shirt and then leaves Macbeth to recover his wits and dignity and urge his guests on to an after-dinner dance. As the mood changes to gaiety and laughter, Macbeth turns to find that his dance partner is Banquo, still bloodied and jagged-necked, still very dead. It is the misdirection and then sudden shocks that work so well in this scene. Indeed Goold chooses to split this one scene into two parts, leaving the audience in suspense until after the interval. The scene is then replayed with emphasis on different aspects before continuing to its bloody end. Patrick Stewart is magnificent as the once-honorable Macbeth, effortlessly conveying the gamut of emotions that he experiences, from paralysing fear of his misdeeds, through snivelling horror to swaggering invincibility. Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth is equally versatile, pouring scorn on her husband’s doubts, then later experiencing a sleepwalking revulsion for her part in the abominable acts.

'O horror, horror, horror!' utters Macduff at one point in the play. Horror indeed we have here, brilliantly realised by new king of the macabre Rupert Goold. Who knew that Shakespeare could inspire such fear?

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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