It’s no surprise to see shows with spooky or paranormal themes this time of year. For companies that produce Shakespeare, Macbeth is an easy and popular choice. But in the case of Devil You Know’s production, dated acting styles better off left dead and buried ruin one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.
Director Paul Tomlinson employs a post-apocalyptic, urban landscape of crumbling buildings and waste more akin to The Walking Dead than Dunsinane. It’s a striking aesthetic by designer Mike Lees, but a concept that doesn’t make sense within the play’s context. Looking like a world where social order has collapsed and the scrabble to survive reigns, Shakespeare’s story lives in a society of rigid hierarchy and rules. Macbeth’s ambition is fed by this inflexible social system rather than the collapse of it.
The chosen performance style of heightened, indulgent delivery also completely contradicts the updated setting. Only a couple of the characters display any degree of urgency or spontaneity; instead the cast largely stand around declaiming their lines and enjoying the sounds of their own voices. It’s not just an unfortunate choice, but an agonising one – I want to shake the cast one by one and bellow, ‘just say the bloody lines!’
There are some moments that don’t completely evoke despair – Jonathan Holby’s fight choreography is tight, although sometimes executed mechanically. The child actors are generally much better than the adults, and some of the cast actually manage genuine connections with each other and the story. These are primarily in the second half, but they provide some respite after a tedious first.
The Bussey Building is such a grungy, atmospheric venue with much potential for intimacy, but this production builds a fourth wall so formidable that there is no interaction with the audience whatsoever. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how Shakespeare’s text works in performance at work in this production, and rather than scary or otherworldly, it’s just rather sad.
Macbeth runs through 8 November.
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