The very name ‘Shakespeare’ comes haloed with a certain gravitas, even when considering his comedies: the Great Playwright, the Wise Man, according to Harold Bloom the very inventor of humanity. It is wonderful, therefore, to see this balloon punctured on occasion, and it is rarely done as well as in David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin’s madcap The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth, occasionally also known by the superstitious as The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of the Scottish Play, an evening out that quite redefines the concept of breaking the fourth wall – or, rather, does away with the concept of the fourth wall altogether.
The play is only partly by McGillivray and Zerlin, as a certain amount of it is by one William Shakespeare.You see, we the audience are not actually attending Theatre Erindale’s production of The Farndale Avenue – look, you don’t mind if I just call it Farndale’s Macbeth, do you?It saves a certain amount of virtual ink. Rather, we are in Southern England, attending a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by a townswomen’s guild in 1982.Unfortunately for the good ladies of the guild, Mr. Murphy is out in full force at their performance: everything that could possibly go wrong does, beginning with the fact that Lady Macbeth is stuck in traffic and must be replaced by the very male stage manager.Beyond that, and to the misfortune of the 1982 audience, even if all were to go right, this performance of Macbeth would be pretty dreadful.Luckily, however, for us as audience in 2013 the terrible performance is in fact a good performance, so that everything that goes wrong is actually going right for us.Which is in practice a great deal less convoluted than it sounds. All we need to do is sit back and enjoy – and restrain ourselves from falling off our chairs while laughing.There were reports of audience members having difficulty breathing from laughter the night I saw the show. Let it not be said that I provide no health warnings.
The Guild’s performance is particularly important to them as they are competing in an amateur dramatic competition, bringing about the presence of an observing adjudicator, Mr. George Peach (just in case there weren’t enough layers to the evening already). So it is very important for their cast of six to do their very best.It is also very important for the Theatre Erindale cast to get their performances right – or wrong, as the case may be. Farndale’s Macbeth gives them a perfect opportunity to massacre Shakespeare, but brings with it the challenge of massacring him in a particular way. All in all, they pull it off, with delightfully atrocious overacting, cues properly missed, and the occasional explosion, in a zany evening fully in tune with the company’s season theme of ‘Mayhem’.
Full disclosure: Farndale’s Macbeth was the very first play I ever worked on as a stagehand, and this doubtless colours my reactions and expectations, as well as my conviction that that the explosion that ends Act One is not apocalyptic enough for its purpose. But though the play is tightly scripted and can appear not to offer much variety in terms of staging potential, Patrick Young’s direction reminded me that there are always alternative possibilities in a play script. He marshalls his forces well and keeps up the necessary pace for a farce, sometimes even a bit too much. Young deserves full credit for putting on this play and for succeeding in its having no disasters other than the intentional ones. At least, if there were any unplanned disasters, they were indistinguishable from the required ones.
The Erindale cast’s quality is uniform, particularly their various British accents, for which Speech & Dialect Coach Meredith Scott deserves due praise.As the wittering and very proper Mrs. Reece (President of the Guild, Lady Macduff, Doctor), Megan Janssen is a wonderfully bustling presence, handbag permanently attached, glasses precarious at the tip of her nose, and raffle tickets always ready for sale. Carolyn Nettleton’s Minnie (Banquo, Macduff’s Son) displays great virtuosity in her pseudo-Scottish accent, occasional time-filling sword-dancing, and especially the difficult art of duelling against oneself to the death. Karyn Mcgibbon (Dawn – Duncan, Fleance, Porter, 2nd Murderer, 1st Witch) is very good at losing her glasses and stumbling into the set, with all attendant disasters. Managing to duel as if blind without actually hitting anyone is no mean accomplishment.
Tavia Pereira’s Felicity is profoundly hilarious in her deep-dyed villainy as Seyton and the 1st Murderer – she would be well suited to the role of Luciano in Hamlet’s The Mousetrap – as well as seemingly one of the more competent members of the Guild, also taking on the 2nd Witch, Malcolm, and Gentlewoman.Unfortunately she is forever upstaged (for the real, 2013 audience, if not necessarily the pretend, 1982 audience) by Kate (3rd Witch, Messenger, Macduff, played by Alyssandria Messina), who has broken her ankle and therefore hobbles throughout the performance on crutches, until after one missed cue too many she is chivvied off the stage to rather disturbing background noises and returns in a wheelchair with an arm in a sling, being pushed around by the director. She valiantly continues, managing a memorable final, virtually immobile duel with Macbeth.
And then there’s Thelma, the company’s diva, who of course plays Macbeth, as well as Ross.Thelma is a juicy role, and Cassondra Padfield bites into it with gusto.Inordinately certain of her own brilliance, determined that this is Her Show, losing her temper, walking out, swearing at the other cast members, she is every theatre person’s worst nightmare, played to the hilt. Padfield is particularly skilled at the art of taking centre stage – not merely aiming poor Kate’s wheelchair towards the back of the set and locking its wheels, but notably adept at using her sleeves to mask the other actors’ faces. Her overacting as Ross and her extended death are note-perfect in their awfulness. The only issue with Padfield’s performance, though, is that she sometimes comes perilously close to doing a good Macbeth – though the script usually saves her from actually doing so.
It seems rather a shame that in this play about a townswomen’s guild, aside from Thelma it is the men who get the plummiest roles.But so it is. Shanghaied into playing Lady Macbeth, stage manager Henry, who has already ruined the opening of the play by putting the set up back to front, provides what must be one of the most memorable performances of the role the world has seen. Michael Esposito II does not attempt to play Lady Macbeth, instead retaining his unplaceable lower-class accent and blithely going through the gestures in a low-cut gown displaying a great deal of chest hair (along with the occasional nipple) and work boots, all accentuated by his slim moustache and unshaven chin. Esposito is especially good at conveying Henry’s profound discomfort at playing a woman, as well as creating a quite credible portrait of a young, down-to-earth man who happens to like the theatre and is not in any way an actor. His burst from Richard III when his memory fails is suitably well-received.
Meanwhile, Ben Hayward is excellent as Mr. Plummer, the director who is having the worst night of his life. Though it seems a bit unlikely that it took him nine months of rehearsals to realise that his cast can’t act, the sheer tizzy into which he is thrown as the disaster unfolds is quite enjoyable. The role can seem unrewarding, mostly confined to existential despair and hopes that his mother won’t learn of this, but Hayward gets his moment of glory when the cast is informed that they have to finish within minutes and Thelma walks out.Taking over the lead role, Plummer (no, not that Plummer) does the fastest Act 5 Scene 4 in recorded history. Hayward rips through the flight of the thanes, Lady Macbeth’s death, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’, and the discovery that Birnam Wood is on the move at blistering speed, a tongue-twisting and memory-defying act that had me wishing for a stopwatch – a performance that deserves an ovation of its own, particularly since I’m reasonably certain not a word of the original was left out. Kudos also to Tavia Pereira, who as the Messenger had to match the speed.
Stealing every moment he is given is Andrew Di Rosa and his glittering jacket as the fatuous adjudicator, George Peach. Whether performing magic tricks, suffering through Mrs. Reece’s inability to get his name right, falling asleep throughout the performance, or subjecting us to a rip-roaring rendition of Vesti la giubba, Di Rosa milks his role for all it’s worth. He is also quite ravishing in his lilac-sequined dress at the end. (Don’t ask.)
Lastly, one must recognise the contribution of one actor unaccountably left out of the programme, namely the inflatable palm tree that is the centrepiece of the forest of Birnam – a scene-stealer of no mean ability whose future seems assured.
One can only trust that Shakespeare would have appreciated being skewered in this manner, as Farndale’s Macbeth is a worthy successor to his own swipes at amateur dramatics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Anyone who has ever participated in amateur theatre will be in stitches as the all-too-recognisable characters ruin one of Shakespeare’s great plays. As daggers on strings threaten the star’s eyesight and the witches perform a show-stopping turn of ‘That Old Black Magic’ round their cauldron (no, really), one can only be reassured that at least nothing ever goes quite so wrong in real life. Does it?