The Streaming Experience: Shakespeare’s Globe’s Macbeth
“Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (ACT V, SCENE 5). All true, and meaningful, as the rain comes down on the secondary school audience attending Shakespeare’s Globe. The three witches rise up out of nowhere, pushing their way forward through the poncho-wearing crowd to the stage, just like the impatient teenagers that surround them. Available for streaming on the Globe’s YouTube channel, The Deutsche Bank adaption of Macbeth, finds its funky footing as the strange women climb up onto a pile of dead carcasses center stage. Who would have thought this would be the way to begin a production aimed at this youthful audience, but it succeeds in the smart way it connects to this high school crowd. It finds thoughtful humor and a shocking thrill on the well-constructed road to tragedy, rather than talking down to or overwhelming the energetic crowd with far too much heaviness for them to bear. It’s a bizarre one though, this production of the Scottish play, as directed by Cressida Brown (Unicorn Theatre’s Icarus). Her invention is strange although somewhat joyfully fun, while never shying away from the dramatic “devil speaks true” tale. The infectious energy of the well tuned cast is high and engaging, as it expertly finds a way to fly the text outward into their hungry young ears in a clear concise manner, making it all float understandably out to the youngsters that congregate. They hear the words, and see the motives come alive quite clearly, even as the production, designed with a colorful pop of fun by Georgia Lowe, somewhat suffers from the strong editing pen and the sharp tailoring of the intense story.
The three weird sisters, embodied by Jessica Murrain, Molly Logan, Mara Allen, climb out of the rain-soaked crowd, playing with and startling the teenagers gathered to see Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. They are more twisted and playful than treacherous, the oddball creations, carousing with a giddy absurdest quality over the dead and the injured. But they ring true, and play wickedly with the ambition of Macbeth, played robustly by Ekow Quartey (NT’s Barber Shop Chronicles), although their predictions fall less powerfully on the more centered Banquo, deftly portrayed by Samuel Oatley (Nottingham Playhouse’s Any Means Necessary). This Macbeth, wearing a period-free pair of running shoes, runs sharply down the path to tragedy, swiftly and pointedly without an intermission, coming to its bloody conclusion in just under 100 minutes. It’s quite the gift, this silly golf-swinging threat of a play, edited down for easy digestion. Most of the play benefits from the killer cuts, such as the pre-brutal death of Macduff’s wife (Jessica Murrain) and children (one of my least favorite moments), while others, like the sleepwalking dementia of Lady Macbeth, deliciously portrayed by Elly Condron (NT/Bristol Old Vic’s Jane Eyre) unfolds like a cliffs-note version of an epic scene that is almost too well known, so, therefore, the accelerated energy sits like an anxious teenager, desperate to get to the good parts, and forgo the rest.
This playful Macbeth is more unique and clever than dark and formidable. Compared to the filmed production I just saw and reviewed from the Stratford Festival, the production revels in a youthful pretense, congratulating itself with an avant-garde, almost Hogwarts-type of banner with a capital D or M. Balloons spell out “congrats” upon Macbeth’s return to his wife with his brand new title, but quickly gets reduced to “rats” as the party ends and the murderous plot of cream-coated King Duncan, played deliciously by Dickon Tyrrell (Royal Court’s Harvest), unfolds. Posters of Macbeth’s face are affixed to poles with the label of “Tyrant” written across as we watch the people begin to turn against him and his reign. Lady Macbeth dons a baby-blue jumpsuit and asks the gods to “unsex” her while rubbing her pregnant belly with unconscious maternal delight. And even though that addition is never fully realized, it’s still all flashy and fun, playing with time-frames and sheets of foliage flowing in over the crowd. Oddly enough, the tricks and treats never really pull us out of the bloody bold resolution that is attached within its twisted clown-masked playfulness.
Macbeth famously looks into the dark edge of greed and corruption, through witchcraft and tyrannical need. Designed for UK secondary school students, it’s clear why, in the year 2020, that this is a theme that wants to be explored. It teaches and utilizes an understanding of the complex context of this well crafted Macbeth without overwhelming its audience. It also wisely plays with the concepts of unity between England and Scotland. The countries come together to defeat the tyrant, Macbeth, and then stand in victory under the unfurled Union Jack. The image will resonate with the students as they discuss, in class, Scottish independence and the political issues of the day, the country, and the world we all live in.
The audience is continuously egged on and asked to participate in the bloody goings-on in this delightfully designed play. The well-done porter scene, perfectly orchestrated by the hilarious Molly Logan (Globe/Playing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), breaks the fourth wall with a bold joke and a pail. She demands that the crowd join in with her well-played knock-knock joke. Macbeth does it himself in the thrillingly swift and haunting banquet scene when he requests feedback on his fashion choice from the kids before he topples most wonderfully off his seat by the ghostly apparition. Macduff, dutifully portrayed by Jack Wilkinson (Claybody Theatre’s The D-Road) finally finds his forceful presence in the final battle scene, and Aidan Cheng (Hulu’s “Harlots“) as son Malcolm, discovers his solid footing once the too-big crown finally makes it to his head.
Director Brown when talking about the production puts forth the idea that “Macbeth asks us to consider what makes a tyrant“. It unleashes the question about what we must do in the presence of greedy ambition that corrupts and divides a nation. It’s a theme worth unpacking by the youthful crowd inside the gory and fun production of Macbeth. “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke. It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash is added to her wounds.” (ACT IV, SCENE 3). The world is inundated with this kind of demented power dynamics, and as we watch a young Malcolm adjust his heavy crown, we remember that the future belongs to these kids, and it will be on their shoulders to unravel the mess that is being created now by greed and unprecedented dishonesty.