I must admit that this production of Macbeth was very much in the Belt Up aesthetic and contributes to an oeuvre which experiments with using space in inventive ways. In a proscenium arch theatre this involves the breaking down the fourth wall and any divide between auditorium and stage in using the space in the performance. Belt Up take some of their ideas from the theatre of the absurd and surrealism. Now when I go and see Belt Up, I know more or less what I’m going to experience. On this occasion their approach was to transform Macbeth into a grotesque comedy, but unfortunately this production seemed to over play the joke and the clowning, and ignored some of the interpretations of the text that could have been highlighted with a more subtle approach.
The production worked when it was building on the grotesque rather than being funny ha ha. There were some clever comic moments for example when we are supposed to feel horror watching Duncan dying on stage (normally he dies off stage), the joke being he doesn’t die easily even though he is a frail man. It felt that Belt Up were working hard to blur the lines between comedy and tragedy so in a moment they became the same thing and this worked well here. There were some other interesting ideas in this production such as a pregnant Lady Macbeth and the birth in the second visit to the witches scene was a thoughtful way of taking the pregnancy idea through the play to a conclusion. Women with beards can be funny and a Lady Macbeth that changes gender from man to women through a striptease on stage was very entertaining. This is a reminder that Lady Macbeth was played by a man originally, but probably not a man with a beard. Indeed, at times, I felt that I was watching a Monty Python approach to Macbeth, but for nearly two hours it was just a little long, especially as the joke was evident from the start and was continually repeated in similar ways.
There were bits of this production which I didn’t think were successful. I didn’t get the clowning at the start of the play, which felt under rehearsed and indulgent and some of the playing against the verse rhythms for effect was irritating. For example, in attempting to make some of the verse sound like it was being delivered by a WWI general through a loud hailer felt really contrived. Belt Up have already used the device of a character dying on stage and the actor continuing to lay motionless on the stage for the curtain call in The Trail. This worked much better in the space used for that production than on a proscenium arch stage where an audience expects a curtain call and playing against this, rather than being innovative, feels just chaotic and confusing. I found the use of the Theatre Royal stage which exposed the back wall and the ruins of the roman hospital, with the clutter on stage, just a little frustrating, because all this suggested the backstage area of the theatre and made me want to see a ‘backstage’ version of the play. In setting up this expectation with the set it becomes slightly disappointing when this only happens in part.
I am pleased that the Theatre Royal is taking chances with the productions it puts on and giving young companies like Belt Up the support it needs to establish itself. Though some of this production worked for me, and other bits didn’t, it was much better seeing this than another dry ‘traditional’ approach to the play.
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