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More than a walking shadow?

Posted on 18th July 2010. No Comment

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Donnchadh O’Conaill examines CTC’s Macbeth under the microscope, Fellow’s Garden, 19/06/2010

Theatrically, in terms of its look and momentum, it was often striking

 Here’s an oddity. CTC’s Macbeth, which will fly Durham’s banner across England and the more civilised parts of America this summer, has a clear, well-integrated vision, a strong aesthetic, moments of brilliant direction, and is well cast in the crucial roles; and yet I found it curiously underwhelming. The simplest way I can put this is that the production was lopsided.

 Theatrically, in terms of its look and momentum, it was often striking. The set created a stark backdrop: five wooden door frames with black sheets billowing in the wind, the stage marked out with tape, four torches guttering at the front. This tableau never threatened to overwhelm the action, but when combined with a broadly uniform acting style it did constrict the production. Something as simple as the witches breaking with convention and entering or exiting by stepping over the tape might have added some fluidity; without any such concession, the staging felt slightly stiff throughout, and tended to steamroller the dramatic nuances of motivation and emotion.

 The key to any production of Macbeth will lie with the actor playing the title role, but the key to the drama is the relationship between him and his wife. This is what gives the action the crucial depth, affording the audiences glimpses of motivation to make sense of what would otherwise appear as one damn murder after another. In CTC’s version, one never felt that Lady Macbeth was anything more than a conspirator egging Macbeth forward.

One never felt Macbeth was fraying

 Ben Starr’s performance in the title role was characterised by his expressive, fluent delivery and command of the stage. These attributes were put to particularly good use in performing to an on-stage public. For example, the speech he makes on confessing that he has killed the servants framed for Duncan’s murder is a little masterpiece in portraying a politician at work, ever so slightly over-practiced and over-sincere. Similarly, Starr’s swagger in confronting and slaying an opponent near the climax is both perfectly judged and entirely in keeping with what has gone before (and his delivery of the one of the best lines in the play, ‘Thou wast born of woman’, is marvellous).

 Where the performance was lacking, in my opinion, was in his portrayal of the private narrative which feeds into and ultimately becomes the public one. He tended to deliver his soliloquies as speeches to the audience, rather than drawing us into the character’s intimate desires and fears. One never felt Macbeth was fraying, unravelled by terror and disgust at his own ambitions. He addressed the hallucinatory dagger as though it were a rival noble standing between him and the throne; the nervous breakdown he appears to suffer having killed Duncan comes almost as a surprise.

The cuts in the script gave the production a headlong momentum

 Stevie Martin delivered a performance of impressive intensity, while also deftly combining different emotions, as in the banquet scene. Alone among the cast, she conveyed a sense of being a victim of forces beyond her control, of struggling and failing to retain her control of her own emotions and ultimately of her own humanity. This was best achieved in the sleepwalking scene, but had been suggested earlier by her nervous spasm on hearing an owl cry. The problem, then, was not so much with Starr and Martin themselves, but rather that their combination was less than the sum of its parts. The lack of intimacy in the blocking inhibited their interaction, and I felt it was telling that the best moments in the play did not feature any of the private scenes they shared.

 Some of this was possibly a result of overall decisions made by co-directors Oscar Blustin and Brooke Ciardelli in order to deliver a streamlined, 90-minute tragedy. The cuts in the script gave the production a headlong momentum, but this was at the cost of any moments of reflection which might have elucidated the choices and motivations of the characters. Everyone seemed too busy doing things to convey a sense of why their actions mattered. Furthermore, the production rarely achieved a definite atmosphere that I could detect. This was most evident in the latter stages of the play; the staging and performances conveyed very little sense that Macbeth is trapped and the walls are closing in around him.

 The chief concession to atmosphere was the witches, who were integrated into the action at various points, sometimes acting as messengers (as when they jeeringly inform Macbeth that his wife is dead), sometimes just lurking in the background. Natasha Cowley, Rebecca Collingwood and Harriet Bradley gave well-pitched performances, complete with sinister movements and bizarre animal noises. What I thought they lacked was more supple set of performances to play off, and a way of conveying how they gradually insinuate their influence into the lives of every character we see.

the inspired use of virtually the whole supporting cast to depict the devil summoned by the witches

 The other, male supporting players struggled against the uniformally macho style, which proved rather reductive and afforded few opportunities for characterisation. Will Steel was appropriately regal as Duncan, and the murderers went about their work with a suitable gusto, particularly when killing of Lady MacDuff and her son; I particularly liked the ‘pick up the knife’ bit they enacted with the latter. But elsewhere, certain performances seemed inhibited by the somewhat rigid style and the demands of the pacing. In particular, Ed Lane, who never seemed fully at ease as MacDuff, didn’t grasp the chance to convey a sufficiently powerful reaction to the news of those murders.

 These criticisms should be balanced first by reference to the setting (it is obviously going to be more difficult to achieve emotional nuance when performing outdoors), and also to certain excellent moments of direction (as in the inspired use of virtually the whole supporting cast to depict the devil summoned by the witches). Finally, I have no doubt that this production will improve on tour as various actors settle into their roles. However, unlike a comedy such as last year’s Twelfth Night, the dramatic and tragic elements of the play will not bloom simply because the acting tightens up. I feel directorial changes are needed to adjust the balance of the production, in order to produce a staging worthy of the talent available.

Donnchadh O’Conaill

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