I was, I have to admit, a little worried as I made my way down the familiar set of stairs at 45 Flinders Lane last night.
The idea of an all-male Macbeth, set in a jail, has some cheesy potential. In theory, it could have been cheesier than a deep fried wheel of King Island Blue Brie. But a number of my most trusted carrier pigeons had informed me that this was not the case. And, I’m happy to say, they were right.
From the moment I entered the theatre I was overwhelmed by the energy, intelligence and courage of this production. Manbeth is ensemble theatre at its best. There are no ‘outstanding’ performances here; and I mean that as high praise. This is a murky, muddy world in which every player must slip and slide in and out of multiple characters in order to keep his head above water. This requires theatricality – genuine theatricality – a quality which this production summons up in spades. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I saw more of it in the first five minutes of Manbeth than can be squeezed from entire mainstage productions. We often identify theatricality as the essence of the form; it appears most often when we peel back the layers of modern varnish and let things breathe. It means trusting in the audience, letting them do most of the work, demanding that they bring their imagination into the room and keep it switched on.
And the interpretation fits the text perfectly. We understand immediately – from looking at the row of bare wooden benches, the dilapidated, stained white wall along the back of the space, the ensemble in their matching prison uniforms, the simplicity of the warm wash lighting and the stark black shadows – that we have entered a disenchanted, Hobbesian world in which the only language capable of being spoken (and understood) is power. These naked men (often literally), stripped of social convention, are little more than a pack of dogs. They circle one another, waiting for weakness, a sign to begin tearing at each others throats. This image is made concrete when, throughout the production, the ensemble begin to bark and howl and, on a number of occasions, drop to all fours and play out canine tableaux. Of course this is a mainstay of prison drama: the yard, the cellblock, these are dog eat dog places. Which seems to suggest, like the opening of Kubrick’s 2001, that history began with violence and will endlessly cycle through violence, suppression and revolution. This was the implication of Roman Polanski’s 1971 film version, that any one of us could, in a moment, become a Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. It’s a powerful message and one which this production captures with precision.
To me this is the difference between interpretation and mere window-dressing. These days we see far too many attempts to ‘modernise’ a text, supposedly so that it may ‘speak’ once more (as if a ‘classic’ could forget its voice or be silenced by history). Window-dressing thus completely misses the point: it is like changing the colour of the curtains or moving the furniture around and expecting the shape of the room to change. An interpretation, on the other hand, preserves the original intention or spirit of the text. Rather than bringing the text forward to us, it takes us backwards. In this sense Manbeth is a triumph: it is hands down the strongest, most supple interpretation of The Scottish Play I’ve seen in a long while.
A few directional things to applaud. Firstly, the use of the space. I’ve seen many shows at fortyfivedownstairs and most back themselves into a corner or play in a restricted space. Manbeth manages to use the whole space effortlessly. And I’ve never seen actors climb up those goddamn pillars before! Secondly, I liked the way in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were split into two characters each (good & bad). It worked particularly well during their soliloquies – so obviously written as contests between conscience and desire – but also added an extra layer of complexity in terms of character motivation throughout. For example, when Banquo is murdered we see an image of Macbeth holding himself back, as if he wants to stop what he has set in motion but cannot. Thirdly, the use of all-male cast. In any all-male scenario the issue of homoeroticism is inevitably raised. In this production it is tackled head on: rather than a sprinkling of token moments designed to ‘tick the box’ we get a thread of homoerotic desire woven right into the fabric of the piece. Full credit to Tanya Gerstle for directorial vision that is thorough, complex and yet economical.
Manbeth exceeded my expectations in every way. It was, for me, the highlight of the year so far.
If you like your theatre docile, pre-masticated and lifeless then it’s probably not for you. However, if you want to shaken by the scruff of the neck until it almost hurts, this is your show.
NB: My only reservation was the name. Manbeth just doesn’t have the right ring to it. It cries out ‘cheese’ like a certain Monty Python episode. It summons up images of men rolling around in baked beans and partaking in weird mythopoetic birthing rituals. Surely someone can come up with something better?