When a production of Macbeth not only manages to make you jump, but also creeps the bejesus out of you, then you know it's getting something right.
Creation Theatre is currently putting on just such a production in the grounds of Lady Margaret Hall, in Oxford, and they kindly invited me along to review it.
Something a little bit different
First off, this isn't you're traditional 'terribly thespian' Shakespeare. This outdoor production uses the beautiful buildings of Lady Margaret Hall to replicate a WWI military sanatorium, while the audience sit around macabre cabaret tables sometimes watching, sometimes being drawn into the performance space.
Having characters and soldiers in gas masks appear from behind, and weave amongst the audience is very clever: it makes you feel as though you are almost intruding on very personal, psychological enactments as Macbeth and the others slowly descend into an ever-more unstable reality.
The building is put to best use in the second half as the natural light fades and eerie blues and greens float through, and punishing reds create a blood-soaked vision of a hell-like castle.
A cast of damaged characters
Macbeth is a tricky play to get right: it's seemingly simple since it's one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, and while full of intrigue, is your basic corruption, guilt and punishment story. A lot of what makes it gripping is the characters and their gradual unravelling, rather than the specifics of the story.
Lady Macbeth is brilliantly performed by Laura Murray, maintaining her steely edge even in madness. Similarly, Madeleine Joseph's Lady McDuff is engaging and timelessly relatable.
Also worth mentioning is Christopher York, who due to a cast shortage, has ended up playing at least three roles. His transformation between each is such, however, that you almost feel you are watching a different person on each occasion. It isn't just accent or costume that he alters, but stance and mannerisms as well. Very impressive.
Unfortunately, while Scott Ainslie's Macbeth is robust, his punctuation makes his soliloquies hard to follow. There doesn't seem to be an entirely natural rhythm to his speech and his intonation doesn't always match Shakespeare's words, which, for me, occasionally breaks the spell of the story.
A missing link
In line with the relocation of the play, rumblings and screechings pervade most the performance, aiming, in the words of director Jonathan Holloway, to emulate 'the meat-grinder guns of the Western Front.' The sound is incredibly good throughout the play in fact, with crisp amplification of the actors' voices, unnervingly loud air raid sirens and haunting distortions coinciding with departures from rational, objective reality.
While these effects, along with lighting and costume, present the idea of a WWI sanatorium, however, the transposition doesn't entirely work. Apart from a drug-induced hallucinogenic scene when the witches reappear in the second half, there just isn't enough of a connection between the words and the story with this new location.
The desire to echo the horrors of shell-shock and the disorientation of war and political instability certainly makes sense on paper, but in reality, I'm sorry to say this still largely feels like traditional Macbeth, just in WWI uniforms.
A ghost story, a slasher movie and a political thriller
This is how Creation's director, Jonathan Holloway, describes Shakespeare's Macbeth. And as far as meeting that description, this production is definitely worth seeing. The build up in tension and erratic fear is brilliantly done and the company makes great use of a dramatic and imposing outdoor set.
It's unfortunate that the WWI sanatorium doesn't come through as well as it might, and the cast shortage sometimes makes the plot hard to follow, but that doesn't detract from what is still a well-polished performance of Shakespeare's most famous slasher.