“Shutter Island” Shakespeare: “Macbeth”, The Tramway, 22/6/12
Whoa. If David Hayman’s recent “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.
I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth. As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus. Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly. One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play. Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.
This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming. Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape. Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat. There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed. I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.
What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well. Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play. Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.
The staging is fantastic too. Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell. However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life. In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen. Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.
There are a couple of oddities. That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head. I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth. I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.
But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland. And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it? It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is. It is Macbeth? In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end. But if it’s not, then who is he? Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex? If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth? What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.
But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.