With inventive staging, text deconstruction and some great performances, East London’s Malachites continue their takeover of South London following last month’s excellent King Lear with Macbeth at The Rose Playhouse. Director Benjamin Blyth approaches this unique venue head on, staging scenes in all parts of the concrete expanse that stretches beyond the pool of water protecting the remains of the Elizabethan Rose. Some moments were effective due to the grandiose scale, some did not work due to sight line issues and distance from the audience. Textual edits were similarly brave, rearranging sections to emphasize Lady Macbeth’s and the witches’ control over the fate of the play. Those dogmatic about the text would probably not appreciate such actions, but they are very much in the spirit of Shakespeare: celebrate language and the improvisational nature of theatre, do not slavishly bind yourself to the text. Overall, this is a confident, experimental production to be commended for its efforts and irreverent approach to the text. Some of the choices made did not work, but Blyth is still to be commended for his effort and conviction.
To open, Lady Macbeth reads the letter conveying Macbeth’s news from battle by candlelight. The action she reads about plays out at the back of the theatre, by the edge of the pool preserving the Rose’s foundations, like a memory or mental picture. Cinematic-style transitions break up her speech, hold a modern audience’s attention, but effectively tell the story. Choosing to begin with Lady Macbeth’s speeches and interspersing the opening scenes with them empower the character, emphasizing the control she has over her husband. This is blatant reconfiguring of the text, but it has a strong message, suits the storyline and creates a completely different tone from more typical productions. Orla Jackson gives a calmly fierce Lady Macbeth, who later on deteriorates from grief and remorse.
Following the initial rearranging of the text, the play carried on with some cuts, until the end, which was also untraditional but showed the cyclical nature of evil and the omnipresence of the witches. In this production, the witches were tall, spidery and male, almost entirely kept at the back of the site. This pulled focus from the action on stage at times and made it impossible to see detail such as facial expression, but they were well lit and cast intimidating shadows on the industrial back wall. They would have been a more powerful presence if brought onto the stage more than the once that they were.
The performances in this production were largely good, though not as consistent as last month’s King Lear. Benjamin Blyth is the highlight in the title role, playing Macbeth with outstanding nuance and emotion I have never seen in the part before. Beginning weak, he becomes more reckless but still dominated by a rich inner life of guilt, pain and fear. I daresay this is the best portrayal of Macbeth I have ever seen. Playing a role with such conviction as he did whilst directing the production indicates immense talent on Blyth’s part. Also notable is the versatile Robert Madeley as Banquo and the Porter (though his Banquo was the better performance) and David Vaughan Knight as a militaristic Macduff. Though he struggled to connect with grief upon hearing of the murder of his family, his stern, grounded performance provided lovely contrast to emotional Macbeth.
Blyth showed determination to use all available playing space at The Rose, placing a large proportion of the action on the far side of the archeological site. Whilst he does the space a service by not ignoring it, there are some obstructive railings and the distance caused visual detail to be lost. More of the action, particularly key moments in the plot, could have been moved to the stage closer to the audience. Clever lighting ensured everyone was lit well, but the presence of actors at the back of the site can distract for foreground action.
The Malachites are certainly a brave company, unafraid to adapt Shakespeare’s text to modern audiences and storytelling techniques. Blyth is a rising star worth watching. This company would benefit from more financial resources in order to add polish to their productions, but they are quickly becoming a key player in staging productions in unusual spaces.
Star Rating: ☆☆☆
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