REVIEW: Seliges Theatre Presents: Macbeth, 28/01/16

Unlike putting on the work of almost any other playwright, living or dead, to put on a Shakespeare play is to enter into an endeavour with the weight of hundreds of years of performances on your shoulders. Unsurprisingly, this often leads directors and producers and members of the creative teams to try to put their own “spin” on the plays. "Macbeth", staged by Seliges Theatre, was a clear example of this.

Much of the production felt as if it was driven by a keen creative mind, unafraid of drawing upon linguistic and visual symbolism to embellish the overall experience. A stark, open space, sparsely decorated, and populated by distant, creepy figures. A bowl full of black ink, tipped across exposed skin, dripping from a mouth. Audio recordings which disorientated both the characters and the audience to great effect. However, these small touches, though clever, never felt as if they quite went far enough towards serving their purpose.

(Photo credit: Teja Boocock & Tom Flathers)

The Bierkeller is a fantastic space, but in the case of "Macbeth", the extreme separation of the audience from the raised stage area felt like a waste, and prevented the audience from engaging emotionally with the actors. Additionally, though the constant presence of the Witches in the space was theoretically very interesting, weaving them throughout a narrative where they are perhaps often absent, they actually did very little, and often seemed to drop character, appearing more like lost actors than creepy omnipresent creatures. Similarly, when multiple characters were on stage, the lack of a set to interact with meant that there was a lot of standing around, which made for quite dull visuals. The displacement of the Witches’ dialogue into voice-over-style recording, though innovative and interesting, was played too fast, and rendered the crucial phrase “thou shalt be king hereafter”, among others, all too easy to miss.

This confusion, caused by creative choices, proliferated throughout "Macbeth". While I am certainly all for gender bending characters, especially to create more opportunities for female actors, the lack of clear costuming made it difficult to pinpoint the identities of some characters. In cases such as Macduff (Rebecca Kent) and her wife (Grace Calvert), the presence of a pregnant belly on Calvert, despite pregnancies within lesbian couples not being uncommon in this day and age, seemed bizarre and off-putting. This was particularly because the costuming was extremely vague, and gave no indication to an era (one which might have artificial insemination available, perhaps!) or a location (presumably Scotland, but who could tell?). Macduff wore a blue top and bodycon skirt, Malcolm (Ashley Hodgson) a cardigan, while Duncan (Teja Boocock) sported a fetching blue power suit. Was this "Macbeth" set in a Scottish office?

(Photo credit: Teja Boocock & Tom Flathers)

That is certainly not to say that there were not strong, redeeming features. A clear sheet strung across the back opened opportunities for enchanting shadowplay, and there were many excellent performances. Jj Balfour was an admirably fierce Lady Macbeth, charting a descent into madness convincingly and emotionally. She also gave one of the clearest and most consistent deliveries of the language itself, which is all too important when speaking in Early Modern English. Where other cast members slurred words, placed emphasis in bewildering places, or failed altogether to connect with the words they were saying, Balfour’s crisp and decisive Lady led us clearly through her every soliloquy, and indeed within every scene in which she was present. Equally good were Becky Irvin as the Creature, despite the somewhat misjudged amalgamation of several important and diverse parts into one new character, and Eleanor Harris as the inexplicably disloyal Lennox. Grace Calvert, too, multi-roling throughout, brought a grounded sweetness and innocence to Fleance and Lady Macduff that made their snapshot character arcs engaging, despite the brief stage time.

What was perhaps a little jarring, however, was Akshay Khanna’s incorporation of impressions of Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier and other Shakespearean “greats” within his own performance. There is a time and a place for tremulous, booming delivery, and it is not literally all the way through. This was a shame, because in his final scene, when such a level of projection and exaggeration is absolutely needed (and was actually brilliantly delivered by Khanna), there was nowhere for him to go - he’d begun the play at a climactic level of volume and drama. I am also uncertain as to why he had to tear all the clothing off his upper body upon hearing the news of the movement of Birnam Wood, but I am going to assume it was something to do either with not wanting to get ink on it or just being really proud of his body. It was weird, though. 

Overall, though flawed, it was an admirable student effort by Seliges Theatre to stage a Shakespeare play, but failed to reach its full potential.