I’ve been bored in theatres before, but this was the first time I’d ever been bored by Macbeth.
The performance history of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play is rich and varied, and since it was published in the early 17th century it has been performed in thousands of theatres, in hundreds of different styles, tones, and languages. There are a number of film versions, an opera, interpretations in art, and other varied attempts to bring an original view on a Renaissance classic. Unfortunately, unique takes on the material do not guarantee quality. In a crowded field, there are bound to be some losers.
Such was the case with Volcano’s Macbeth – Director’s Cut, which showed at the Taliesin Theatre on the 23rd and 24th of October. It began promisingly; a dynamic, evocative stage filled with incongruous monochrome objects, with a man hammering nails into a stump and a woman cooking pungent garlic, both staring up at the audience as we were taking our seats. We had been promised that this version of Macbeth would be performed by just these two actors, who would somehow manage to play the necessary characters to tell the story.
The idea that this might actually work was immediately put into jeopardy when, after some pretentious interpretive movement, the cast suddenly broke off and greeted the audience with a nervous ‘Hi!’ And then, playing no character but their moderately enthusiastic selves, they launched into an incongruous and hideously awkward introductory seminar on the nature of time and destiny, both important themes in the play, delivered entirely in modern English. It was the theatrical equivalent of a quirky GCSE study guide rammed down the throats of the audience for seemingly no purpose other than to push the production’s runtime. A word of advice for aspiring directors – don’t waste your audience’s time. But if you’re going to waste your audience’s time, don’t help them to realise it with a monotonous pseudo-TED talk about the fleeting nature of said time.
Things only got worse from there. The well-intentioned actors blundered from scene to scene, taking it in turns to ostensibly portray Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the supporting characters with no emotion beyond a monotone earnestness. There was no possibility for connecting with or caring about the characters; even the when the duo of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were being portrayed, they were anything but dynamic. They simply spoke the words as if they signified nothing; two hours of listening to them read aloud from the phone book would have been equally as compelling – that is to say, not at all.
I don’t blame the actors for this. They are clearly talented and put their weight into their performances, although it seems difficult to imagine they could have elicited an emotional response from the audience beyond pity. It seems to be the direction that is at fault. There is a carelessness to this production – you could almost imagine the director giving the actors no particular guidance on how to move or act. If he did, it doesn’t show – they interacted with their selection of random props as if they’d been simply told to “Mess about a bit.” It is interesting that this was entitled Macbeth – Director’s Cut – as it isn’t entirely clear what role the director even played in the creation of this production.
There were moments of interest amongst the slog, but these were as infrequent and fleeting as shooting stars on a cloudy night. The risky novelty of seeing members of the audience taken onto the stage to play the guests at the Macbeths’ feast was one of these, as was when all the lights went down and left only a brief candle illuminating the stage. The characters addressing the audience as if they were the witches was another bold staging choice, but this, in particular, was a difficult moment to follow if you were not familiar with the text, and risked derailing the story.
That is if it wasn’t already derailed; this felt the staging equivalent of a fever dream. There was no cohesion between the various set pieces, and when it spiralled into other unrelated bits of theatre it brought me further and further out of what precious little story there was. It felt like the director was treating the story of Macbeth like an Ikea instruction manual, disregarding bits at random, losing key elements, leaving a wonky end product. The actors were saying the lines and doing the bits, but it all felt very removed from anything remotely resembling Macbeth, and in the end, I left feeling nothing, which, in my personal view, is the worst thing a play can possibly do.
The best way I can think to describe this production is that it embodies every negative stereotype about art and theatre imaginable, and they are all played grimly straight. Do you think the theatre is pretentious? Well, here are a couple of people running around playing with dolls for two hours for REASONS. Do you think the theatre is inaccessible? Well, here’s the text of Macbeth but butchered to the point where you’d need to have studied the text at school, as I did, to keep up. It is difficult to understand why Macbeth – Director’s Cut is touring nationwide; dreck like this should have been sent straight back to the drawing board.