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MacBeth at the Abbey Theatre

Myself and the better half had the pleasure of taking in a show in the national theatre last night. Director Jimmy Fay has brought Shakespeare’s MacBeth, the play known in the industry as “the Scottish play”, to the stage. I studied MacBeth in secondary school, as one of the big four tragedies. I would have rather studied Othello or Hamlet, but at least it wasn’t King Lear. We had high hopes in settling into our seats for the full performance – Fay had brought The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui to the stage only last year in a show that remains perhaps my favourite of all the plays I have seen at the Abbey. Did MacBeth live up to those expectations?

"Something wicked this way comes..."

Not quite. Don’t get me wrong – it was a perfectly adequate performance of a superb piece of theatre. Some of the performances and atmospheric elements are simple superb – most of the set design, with the folding and unfolding and constant reconfiguring of the back wall, is striking and spartan, as is the way the set opens into itself, with trapdoors and corridors and the like. However, there’s relatively little flare here – the same grey utilitarian design had accompanied Fay’s earlier play, but there it came with more energy and innovation, while here it can only really seem half-hearted.

The show’s experients with lighting, while interesting, are not wholly successful. Sometimes, such as when the stage is lit from the side with intense beams of light casting the actors half in darkness, it works. Other times, such as backlighting certain sequences against a blood red screen, there are obvious problems with clarity and perception. The figures look distorted, but not in a way that compliments the ambiguity of the text. It just looks like an idea which hasn’t been executed half as well as intended.

The most grating element, however, is the sound design. I understand it’s meant to be sharp and disorientating, making the audience distinctly uncomfortable, but there were some issues with volume and pitch during certain interludes – what I imagine were supposed to be shrieking violins sound more like nails on a chalkboard. There are moments of subtle brilliance, such as the constant beating of the drums of war as MacBeth’s reign comes to a bloody and violent end, but these are few and far between.

However, it’s a Shakespeare play, so it lives or dies by its performances. And most are passable, with a few exceptional. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Aidan Kelly – he alway struck me as a long lost Mitchell Brother (in fact, the Eastenders casting directors should certainly look him up). “An angry bald MacBeth seemed the next logical step.” Kelly does anger and rage, really well. Very well, indeed. However, MacBeth as a role requires more complexity than that. I realise Kelly may have been attempting to give us the impotent rage of the lead character, but there has be something more subtle to the role than that. The real star of the play is Lady MacBeth, but Kelly gives us a title character who is simply one-dimensional.

In contrast, Eileen Walsh offers a much stronger performance of Lady MacBeth, managing to almost singlehandedly to pseudo-sexualise the play. There’s something wonderfully ‘off’ about her interpretation of the character, as she writhes on the ground or moans in agony or ecstacy as she pleads “unsex me here”.

Similarly, the supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. The standouts are Michael McElhatton as Banquo and John Kavanagh as Duncan, who make the most of their supporting roles, and show a superb ability to handle Shakespeare’s dialogue, which can get the best of even the finest actors. Rory Nolan is also good as The Porter, handling his comedic dialogue surprisingly well (Shakespeare’s humour is somewhat hard to transition to modern times, sometimes), but I could have done without the “one the nose” “anglo house” reference. The play is timeless. Let’s keep it that way, shall we? Other actors wrestle a bit with the dialogue, and there’s a tendency to ham it up from time to time, but it’s a reasonably well-acted piece with a few standouts.

It’s just a shame that the surrounding production isn’t to a higher standard. MacBeth is a play full of contradictions – the weird sisters who tell dishonest truths, or those who sleepwalk dying in their beds or Banquo who will father kings though he be none (“lesser than MacBeth, but greater still”) – and there are a lot of thouse in the play, bleeding through. Take the choreography. The fights on the central stage, are all beautifully and carefully choreographed, moving with frentic pace and bursting with energy. however, this energy is somewhat overshadowed when you look over their heads to the looming silhouttes locked in battles outside the keep – these shadow conflicts may as well be occurring in slow motion, they look so sloppy, but they can’t help but draw the eye away from the higher-quality confrontation on the main stage.

It was grand. It’s a Shakespearean play, which is a mark of quality and one performed in full. The problem is that the production itself is somewhat uneven in execution. There are numerous elements which fall short, somewhat undermining the success of those elements that work in establishing a mood of darkness and forboding. And perhaps that’s the real tragedy here.

3 Responses

  1. I too studied Macbeth in school and would have preferred Othello or Hamlet. I really despise the Orson Welles film version, but the greatest incarnation I’ve seen was a taped staged version with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen which I found to be just brilliant.

    • We used the same one, and it was great. Our teacher somehow also convinced our parents to let us watch Polanski’s version (made by Playboy, for those fond of trivia) and it was pants. And fairly sordid pants at that.

  2. great. Our teacher somehow also convinced our parents to let us watch Polanski’s version

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