REVIEW: Macbeth, Theatre Royal

03
February
2018

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REVIEW: Mark Bruce’s production of Macbeth, Theatre Royal Winchester
By Eleanor Marsden

Saying that the opening production of the Theatre Royal’s new 2018 season was like a bad dream would be praise indeed to director Mark Bruce, a renowned contemporary dance choreographer whose company has been presenting cutting-edge dance and performance work since 1991. Shakespeare’s renowned dark tragedy is translated for the medium of dance in a nightmarish setting, full of unnerving effects, tableaux and freakish characters, who wear their inner ugliness on the outside.

For anyone who has ever harboured fears of witches, clowns, dolls, needles, hammers, knives and masks… This version of the Scottish Play might not be for you, since the company uses all these motifs and more besides. With a cast of only 8 (excluding understudies), there has been some imaginative pruning of the plot and dramatis personae: purists may object, but nevertheless, the main elements of the story are largely present (as are some moments which actually occur off-stage in the play). True, Malcolm and Donalbain have morphed into ‘Duncan’s daughter’ and the famous Birnham Wood doesn’t move to Dunsinane… but all the same, the production’s overwhelming tropes of human frailty, greed and remorse are ever-present – in all their ghastly and gruesome reality. That said, some knowledge of the plot would be useful before seeing this production; some aspects didn’t quite translate and many of the audience were left scratching their heads at more obscure symbolism.

Non-dance aficionados may struggle with the medium of storytelling to start with; admittedly, it takes a while to adjust to the jerky movements of some of the pieces and the complete lack of any of the famous text. The only ‘speech’, indeed, is the odd scream – punctuating truly horrifying moments and guaranteed to shake the audience out of themselves (and quite often, out of their skins). Present as almost another character in the action is the simple but highly effective set, working in conjunction with a dramatic and dream-like lighting scheme, which has characters and tableaux fading in and out on the stage as if in the imagination. Effects, too, are sparse but highly effective: King Duncan’s funeral pyre, for instance, is a sight to behold.

It may take a bit of time, but gradually, the medium becomes completely normal and the language of the movement starts to make sense. Macbeth (an expressive Jonathan Goddard) has some serious chemistry with his Lady (Eleanor Duval) and the moment when he finally shelves his indecision and seizes the knife that changes his future is truly chilling – but compelling. At the other end of the spectrum, Duncan’s daughter (Carina Howard) tells us of her grief at her father’s murder in a supremely moving piece of dance which sets her as the antithesis of Lady Macbeth.

Throughout the production, the music of Arvo Pärt has been cleverly stitched together; the variety of his compositions – from choral majesty to dissonant discord – fitting expertly to the narrative (augmented by a number of other composers). Was it an ‘enjoyable’ experience? No; the production seeks to make the audience profoundly uncomfortable in many places, and for those unused to the medium, it is surprising how movement, light and sound alone can have such an effect. However, for those wanting to be challenged, moved and ever so slightly frightened, this is a production to see – in all its clever, and deeply creepy, creativity.