Is the Globe’s production of Macbeth blood-lettingly entertaining? A resounding yes. Is it also a subtle, well-acted exploration of fate, time and loyalty? Not so much. But then, subtly may not be what the production has in mind when, for example, one of the Weird Sisters drives a spike into the head of the Porter. Indeed, the steps up to the playhouse contain signs that inform the audience: ‘Please note: this is a gruesome production of a brutal play’.
Director Lucy Bailey’s Macbeth, designed by Katrina Lindsay, draws parallels between the Globe Theatre and the circles of Hell. A black stretch-fabric tarp is suspended at shoulder-level over the yard, with holes through which (standing) audience members can poke their heads. (The director credits an image by Gustave Doré for this idea). At various points throughout the show, bloodied bodies spout up from different areas under the tarp, causing momentary panic in the audience. The stage is draped in black (covering the more opulent decorations for the Globe’s repertory production of Henry VIII), and a large metal ring holding a rotating sheer curtain is suspended above the stage. (The curtain, seldom used, serves as more of a distraction than anything else.) Numerous trap doors in the stage floor prove a useful space into which bodies are dumped and from which hands writhe; a particularly shocking effect occurs when a bloodied Banquo climbs out of a feast-laden table. Costumes, heavy on the use of cowls, complete the dark mood with their shades of black, grey and midnight blue. And in a reference to the Weird Sisters as the ‘gatekeepers of Hell’, their costumes are made of the torn uniforms of the Globe’s stewards (ie ushers and ticket-takers).
Violence and theatricality dominate. While the text relates many of the murders and executions as second-hand accounts, Bailey’s production doesn’t shrink from showing throat cuttings, stabbings, biting, neck twistings (with appropriate bone-cracking sound effects), and the aforementioned driving of a spike into the Porter’s head. The bodies of Duncan, the two allegedly murderous groomsmen, and Lady Macbeth are all dragged onstage and shown to the audience. The violence is mostly for theatrical effect, though the production strikes an uncomfortable note in the depiction of the brutal slaughter of Lady Macduff and her two children. The stage fighting, choreographed by Philip D’Orleans, is underscored by the choice of a weighty long-blade axe for Macbeth—not a pretty sight should something go awry, but it does make for a thrilling ending battle with Macduff. Enhancing the ‘time is out of joint’ feel (yes, that’s Hamlet, not Macbeth) is the presence of haunting music composed by Orlando Gough. Discordant and otherworldly, the score employs bagpipes and, most unnervingly, a didgeridoo, which wails like a hellish siren during moments of murder and intrigue.
While this show earns accolades for pure entertainment value, its treatment of the material is mildly disappointing. Elliot Cowan as Macbeth has a tendency to sink into impossibly elongated ‘ee’ sounds, and enacts much of the middle section of the play in a singsongy tone of voice. By the highly paced final act, however, he manages to present a believable characterization of a man gone mad. Of equal interest is the decision to cast Laura Rogers as Lady Macbeth. Rogers, a Globe regular, slinks onto the stage looking fresh-faced and naive, as if she accidentally wandered out of a Noel Coward comedy. In the program notes, Bailey states that she specifically cast ‘a very young Lady Macbeth’ not as a ‘fiend-like queen’ but rather as ‘the sex bomb of Scotland’. Rogers certainly lacks a hard edge, and she takes some getting used to, but she is ultimately convincing in her portrayal.
The Weird Sisters (played by Janet Fullerlove, Simone Kirby, and Karen Anderson) deserve special mention as effective both in their acting and their staging. The entirety of the second prophecy sequence plays as a grotesque carnival. During ‘none of woman born’, one of the Sisters appears to rip a fetus out of another of the Sisters, causing a spray of liquid into the audience. Apart from gross-out gags, the Sisters distribute paper crowns to the patrons, reinforcing the sense of Macbeth’s complete inability to father a line of kings.
The Globe’s Macbeth is not for the weak of stomach—as a gore-fest, it is deliciously bloody and contains enough surprises to induce occasional shrieking. When left to quieter moments, however, the production falters, seemingly waiting for the next gory spectacle to maintain its momentum.
Macbeth runs April 23 – June 27, 2010 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, UK SE1 9DT. Information can be found at http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/