Proteus bill their production of Macbeth (directed by artistic director Mary Swan) as being a ‘highly physical reimagining’ of Shakespeare’s play as a ‘corporate thriller’. They chose to set it against the very specific backdrop of the great storm of October 1987 and the stock market crash that became known as Black Monday. This is a concept that works extremely well on paper, but unfortunately the text was not allowed to offer enough support for it to be truly successful.
Jo Nesbø’s crime novel adaptation of Macbeth (for the Hogarth Shakespeare series) takes a similarly dark and oppressive commercial slant on this tale of greed, ‘vaulting ambition’ (1.2.27) and ‘scorpions’ (3.2.37) of the mind. I was reminded of this at those moments in the production during which the tension and atmosphere were built up extremely effectively: Macbeth crouching by the phone, high on cocaine, peeping through the blinds at the chaos and approaching sirens outside, Fleance and Banquo ambushed in the dark, Banquo’s ghost pouring blood over itself from a champagne bottle. The fight sequences and brutal murders were all well co-ordinated by Jonathan Waller, providing consistent moments of believable risk, which help to drive the action along.
“Proteus managed to make Shakespeare’s shortest play feel inordinately long”
The characterisation skills of the five actors were truly impressive. Adrian Decosta, in particular, displayed great versatility as a Mafia-boss Duncan, principled Macduff and gender-curious Lennox. I only wish that the cast had not relied so heavily on accents to distinguish their several characters as the emphasis on their manner of speech often smothered the sense of the lines. This was an unfortunate running theme of the evening. A few actors’ ticks and too close a focus on aesthetics rendered the lines almost immaterial. (Costume department – Macbeth needs a new notch cut in his belt; he spent most of the play pulling his trousers up. If this was supposed to be a metaphor for his lack of manly resolve it did not quite hit the mark.) It was also regrettable that the attention to detail in characterisation was undermined by poor delivery of the text. Hassan Maarfi’s Macbeth, though engagingly intense, lost my attention by constantly repeating the same trick of pausing just before the most… important word of the line then running on into the next without allowing me time to catch up. Although Kudzanayi Chiwawa’s Lady Macbeth carried herself with a certain solemn gravitas, she too fell fowl of over-using pauses. As a result, much was missed. By the end of the first scene between the Macbeths I was blissfully unaware that the decision had been made to murder Duncan despite knowing the play.
Indicative of this lack of attention to meaning was one highly entertaining scene in which Decosta (as Lennox) had a conversation about Macbeth over the telephone from a phone box, wearing some fabulous red heels, with a long earing dangling from his left ear. More than that, I cannot tell you. The audience were won over by his playful vocal work and amusing juxtapositions of pitch and tone, but I know that I was left none the wiser as to what had been said and what bearing it had on the plot. The result of these less-than-comprehensible scenes was that Proteus managed to make Shakespeare’s shortest play feel inordinately long.
It was a shame that the ‘physical’ aspect of this company’s repertoire was only successfully utilised in a couple of scenes – I wanted more! But only more of the good stuff. I would rather forget that both halves of the production began with a GCSE-feeling choral movement sequence to some of the witches’ speeches. ‘When shall we three meet again?’; I wasn’t sure, as there were five of them and they weren’t really meeting, but rather offering some sort of slo-mo gesticulation (attempting to set up a stylised trading room). The witches were a real mystery in this production. Were they go-go dancers or prostitutes? Macbeth certainly was not scared of them. They seemed to control him through drug abuse; injecting him with heroin and then taking him on a ‘trip’ through and around the pieces of simple metal furniture that made up the set (designed by Katharine Heath). That was one of the most successful movement sequences of the show but there was still so much potential for Proteus to take this further.
“Too much to play with?”
The three movable blocks made out of scaffolding-style metal were fully utilised in many imaginative ways. A dual vanity set was created, allowing the audience to watch the Macbeths through the mirror as they both attempt to wash the blood off their hands; a striking and powerful vignette. The idea of Macbeth delivering his famous speech ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’ into the mirror was inspired but I still think tricks were missed. What if Macbeth had climbed over the sink and through the mirror, breaking that barrier of suspended disbelief and addressed the audience directly? The sheer volume of drugs he had taken alone would justify using this as a convention and it would certainly have got my attention. The audience were sometimes addressed but never seriously; I never felt that uncertainty as to whether a response was required or an actor actually needed to be listened to.
Perhaps Proteus theatre had too much to play with? I felt that the promised ‘pulsing’ soundtrack of 80’s tunes (with the occasional outlier) and period outfits (Macbeth in a purple, velvet polo-neck was a new one for me!) were mistakenly relied upon to maintain the audience’s attention. Clearly much thought had gone into the characterisation, Macbeth and Banquo’s relationship was believable and relatable, Adam Buksh’s Banquo carried a modesty and humility that contrasted nicely with Macbeth’s brashness, but not enough was made of Macbeth’s treachery and assassination of his closest friend.
Overall, this production was a display of unharnessed and wasted potential. Despite the decision to cast actor Jessica Andrade as a female Malcolm, nothing was made of the gender politics within the play. I was left disappointed that the setting felt like nothing more than a gimmick, cleverly relocating the marching of Birnam Wood to a specific period of history, but not allowing the plot and story to gain meaning or impact on its audience. A big mixing bowl of exciting ideas and vibrant characters but, alas, no soufflé emerged.