When Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth opened last night at Trafalgar Studios in London (I’ll get to the performance in a moment, but suffice it to say for now–incredible) the audience were made to wait in the foyer because “it’s not set up yet” the usher explained with a funny laugh (the type of laugh reserved for Big Surprises). We were excited, but we were getting more and more cramped. The frisson of curiosity was building.
We were already unsure what to expect before we arrived, as we’ve never experienced Stage Seating at the Trafalgar Studios before. At last we were directed downstairs, past the bar and then further down, past the stage door and then up again into a dystopian warehouse ringed in plush red seats. We were transfixed by the set–they had created a theatre-in-the-round and we, the audience were surrounded by the rusty, dusty, crumbling warehouse. We were all going to be in it together.
The seating was comfortable and as we had a drama student with us we were pleased to be on the aisle because much of the performance spilled into the walkway between the two sets of seats and she could see the actors even more up close—it was a case of moving your feet out of the way to keep from getting stomped on as the actors charged about.
We had been told in the foyer that the performance would start at 7.30 and yet it wasn’t until 7.40ish that it began. But then again, the performance really started the moment we were asked to wait in the foyer–crowds of people waiting in the holding area then directed according to our papers to areas where we would sit and watch the collapse of a man. What you expect to happen doesn’t, and what you don’t expect does. Intended or not, this served to set the scene of discord, surprise and wonder which would continue throughout the play; whether this was a nifty first-night mix-up or an intended device, it worked.
The familiar themes of post-apocalypse (uncertainty, edgy people catching every opportunity for survival, the importance of trust yet the frequent distrust) could have seemed like a gimmick, but instead worked perfectly to make us question the familiar story of Macbeth, asking, what will happen in the end? giving the audience a refreshing new experience.
And by the end of the first scene I was already feeling the cautious relief (and the thrill!) that this was a performance that would entertain, excite and enthral. Beautiful theatre.
Before last night I read some of the discussion “is James McAvoy too young to play Macbeth?” By the second scene I was convinced that at 33 he is the perfect age–young enough to allow his ambition to show too easily and to be vulnerable to the manipulations of others, but old enough to have the power and influence to carry off such an ambitious scheme. And James McAvoy gave us Macbeth the man, full of masculine power and war glory fresh from battle, full of the flaws and weaknesses and emotions of a man making his mark in his world, and sharing it all with his love. His wonderfully subtle but very clear disappointment on hearing Duncan declare Malcolm his heir made me smile with delight; how fantastic to know you’re in the hands of such finely-tuned acting. Then he masterfully transformed Macbeth, reducing the man and building the monster with a fierce momentum in every scene, pushing Macbeth closer and closer to his self-made end. It was incredible watching how McAvoy appeared to grow in stature, commanding more and more of the stage.
One of my favourite scenes was the last time we saw the witches where Macbeth made his final transformation from man to monster. He drank from their cauldron of prophesy, then submerged himself in it, and came up dripping and flowing with the vile brew, spitting and vomiting his future, while standing high above the stage on a desk—yes, he is king, but no he is not glorious. This production makes outstanding use of props and design to add layers of symbolism showing us meaning behind meaning—again, things are not always what they seem and we must look beyond the surface to read meanings. And as he heard these strange prophesies, McAvoy artfully gave us the Macbeth who failed to look beyond the superficial words to more carefully consider his future by keeping us focused on his greedy, uncomfortable actions here in the present.
Another powerful moment was near the end where the stage was almost empty and Macbeth was sitting alone, about to go into battle, and he paused in his bullish rages and passions to reflect. He looked a bit stunned, vulnerable, and resigned. And then he spoke, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” We were exhausted and sad for the man.
If James McAvoy was the perfect Macbeth, there was excellent casting throughout–Lady Macbeth, played by Claire Foy with her pretty, delicate features that contrasted beautifully with the harsh survivor’s instinct of Dystopian Lady Macbeth. For the first time, Lady Macbeth was believable to me as a real human, not a caricature of the sly bitch supporting role that sends Macbeth further along the path the witches revealed to him. Foy perfectly plays her as was a woman of a crumbling world who is, like everyone in that grim place, looking for opportunities to ensure her survival—and that of her husband. Then her exquisite performance as the sleepwalking woman, lost to the rest of us, absorbed in her own hell, tormented by events she set in motion but ultimately could not control.
And the witches (Lisa Gardner, Alison McKenzie, Olivia Morgan). What a study they must be for whomever plays them. In the past I have always seen the witches as the evil opposite to Duncan’s good, making the Scottish play really just boil down to good v evil, with evil winning. But here, they just were. They delivered the facts, they sneered, they stood firm, and no one would or could order them or change them; the idiocy of man would not influence or affect them. Powerful creatures, frightening in their female yet not female (nor male) costumes. I loved the gas masks they wore–preventing them from breathing the same poisoned air as the rest of the characters.
Every role was worn well, the actors held their own against each other, and every time someone, even the minor characters moved across the stage the movement appeared deliberate and yet natural. They were part of the set at times, blending in with the grime, and then suddenly alive, their part in the story rising up and challenging the rest like waves clashing and then moving together in a stormy sea. They certainly drew me in; I believed in their world.
A true connection wove between the characters, as if the actors had known each other forever. They worked as a unit. The more intimate relationships were believably close. I especially loved Banquo’s (Forbes Masson) solid friendship with Macbeth that began to pause, then sour, and Macbeth’s realisation that his friend was withdrawing; and then Macbeth’s regret when he said farewell to Banquo. Or Lady Macduff (Alison McKenzie) and her son, their relationship expressed in a delightful dialogue of teasing and laughter (they worked so well together!), only to be cut short by men coming to murder them.
Another stand out performance was the moody porter (Olivia Morgan), which had the audience transfixed–there was one man I could see in the front row across the stage from me who looked like he was there with his wife. She was into the production, transfixed, but he was somewhere else. I rarely caught him looking at the actors; often the floor, the walls, his hand, the distance… but when the porter was complaining about being woken “knock, knock, knock…” and then when the porter was moaning at Macduff (Jamie Ballard), the man in the front row was focused. Completely. He was staring hard at the porter, following the character’s every move, his face twitched at the funny bits, frowning at others. Like his wife, he was transfixed. (Another thing I like about theatre-in-the-round is the opportunity to see reactions on the audience’s faces.) Morgan’s performance was explosively outstanding.
The only scene that didn’t quite work for me was when we were introduced to the new setting in England. It lacked the raw eloquence of the rest of the play; its delivery was awkward and clunky. What came to mind while watching it was a high school production that thinks it’s being clever. But then it was swiftly gone again, carried on by the fast current of energy that shoots through this whole production, and we quickly arrived at the powerful scene between Macduff and Malcolm.
And the only character I was wishing more energy from was Malcolm (Mark Quartrley) but then again, that was the nature of the character, a bit too nice like his dad, even if he was trying to be cautious and suspicious of others’ motives in order to not be fooled like his dad.
Apart from the powerful acting and connection between the characters, I was impressed with how the actors used the space, even when throwing branches and weapons and bodies around, they never looked constrained and never seemed affected by the audience’s proximity. One moment where a soldier needed to throw a branch away and the branch was perilously close to the front row, he managed to do so without looking like he was avoiding the front row of an audience. Perfect control, every time.
The set was so much more than ‘old dusty rusty warehouse with industrial style furniture cast about’. Ladders and trapdoors enhanced the 3D nature of the theatre-in-the-round, while flickering fluorescent lights, hand held torches, and workmen’s’ spotlights manipulated by both actors and lighting crew changed the space—enlarging and tightening, controlling the darkness of their world. The sound was also used well, including feedback and a metallic echo creating claustrophobia and anxiety. The design challenged without harming our expectations.
Top points: powerful actors who were in command of the whole theatre, who were a part of the design rather than removed from it, and who made excellent use of the surrounding audience. I also loved the clever choice of set and setting. A true example of creative mastery.
Low points: the arrival in England could have been more interesting—but only in relation to the high bar set by the rest of the performance. A couple of people complained that the Stage Seating was a bit chilly, as it’s near the back door (Bring a coat! It’s winter!).
What did the rest of my group think? The husband, who is not one to give a performance the benefit of the doubt, loved it and declared Claire Foy’s performance flawless. The 20-year-old drama student was completely inspired and enchanted. Sitting next to the aisle was an ideal position for her; it was like workshopping with the ultimate team, up close learning of different techniques. The GCSE student who happens to be studying Macbeth at the moment decided that she didn’t hate Lady Macbeth after all, and that she now saw her as more human, more realistic and gave her more sympathy. Also, the dystopian setting helped her see some themes she had previously been struggling with.
Why go? To see world class acting, to see a complete performance where no part of the team lets you down, to see a production that will be referenced many times in the future.
Who should go? People who love the Scottish play, students studying the play, drama students who want to see a different way to produce Shakespeare, fans of the actors, and tourists who want to take advantage of the opportunity to see world class theatre because this really is the London West End at its best (don’t worry if you think you won’t understand the Shakespearian language, you’ll still follow the story.) The theatre recommends a 14+ age group. There is some bloody violence.
Best seats? I loved sitting close enough to experience the actors’ more subtle movements, but Trafalgar Studios is designed so that even in the back row up at the top (I have sat there as well, for Simon Callow’s Being Shakespeare) you are invited into the intimacy of the small moments as the story charges forward.
Worst seats? The very end of the rows in the Stage Seats (some restricted views).
In summary: An incredibly powerful performance, entertaining and captivating, with excellent casting, an amazing design and perfect vision this is an interpretation of Macbeth people will talk about for a long time.
Oh, and just so you know, I didn’t receive any kickbacks for this review, I just loved the performance and know that a lot of my readers plan trips into London (from all over the world) that I thought I should share. Would love to hear what others think of the performance too!