Macbeth. Trafalgar Studios, 28th Feb 2013

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This Macbeth was set in a dystopian future, and it was a violent and fast-moving production. I had a stage seat, and  I was in the middle of the second row on an aisle.  This meant that I had a very good view of both the actors and the audience. The reviews have picked up that this was a very bloody production and there was lots of stage blood.  Other bloggers teased me with the prospect of being covered in blood.  However, I ended up with a little speck on my hand, and the ushers kindly assured us that if we got any blood on us it would wash out.

I felt that the production was unnerving and shocking, and even the crashing opening jerked me.  As I was sat in the middle of the stage and being so close to the actors, there was a real sense of this being a performance and that I was constantly being reminded that I was in a theatre and seeing an illusion.  I loved the rawness of the theatre space around me and being so aware building itself with its black painted walls and the props placed around  the entrance to the stage.  At one point the back of the stage opened and revealed the street outside.  The masks worn at points in the production were also a reminder that this was theatre and a show, and added to the overall unnerving grotesque aesthetic of the production.

As the production clearly referenced metatheatre, I had hoped that the production might have involved the audience more than it did, and I think the actors tended to act as if there wasn’t an audience.

There were some interesting doubling.  For example,  the actors who played the witches, also played Banquo’s murderers.  This made sense, but I wasn’t clear whether all the doubling choices had some meaning or they were just pragmatic doubling because of the size of the cast.  The same women who had played the witches and the murderers also played Macbeth’s attendants, and  one of the reasons that I would question that we were meant to think they were the witches was the look of despair on the women’s faces in the final scenes when it was clear that Macbeth would be defeated.  If they were shape-shifting witches masquerading as attendants maybe they would have looked delighted that their plan had worked.  The other problem with the doubling was I had been trying to believe that Lady Macduff was also a witch, and this didn’t work for me so probably not the case, but  I could believe that she was a warrior as she sat beside her husband in Macbeth’s castle.

In this production, the supernatural was played down.  For example, there wasn’t an air drawn dagger. In the scene where Macbeth returns to the witches we don’t see the visions.  The scene becomes Macbeth drinking the witches’ potion and becoming physically ill as well as  hallucinating.  Without the supernatural being emphasised, it felt  as if the characters had more control over their futures and there were clear choices to be made.  The horror around them was of their own making.

In the English scenes, the lights went up and the house was illuminated, but this wasn’t a promised end.  England felt just as bleak in a futuristic England as it did in Scotland.  At the end of the play we were left  feeling there would be little change.  The violence that had defeated Macbeth would continue to contribute to this horrific vision of a future Scotland.  It felt the ending reflected the start of the play where Macbeth had defeated Cawdor and we had seen the bloody soldier. Macduff (Jamie Ballard) felt so hurt and angry that he was now set on a path of violence and revenge which would continue after Mabeth’s death.

There were some strong performances. Forbes Masson was an older Banquo. As a ghost he chides Macbeth, and his ghostly presence is as violent as his earthly and he thirst for combat and revenge is still there.  Jamie Ballard played an extremely emotional Macduff and Claire Foy was a Lady Macbeth that was at her best in the scenes when Macbeth becomes increasingly isolated.

I felt that James McAvoy dominated this production. With his ginger beard, he was a constant presence and extremely active. There was a moment where he hesitated when he heard Macduff’s son speak from his hiding place cupboard.  For a moment, I thought that Macbeth would leave the boy, but after a pause, he turned back and savagely killed the boy.  McAvoy hesitation on ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’, felt strange, but at the same time kept the focus on McAvoy and his internal turmoil. It was so different from Jonathan Slinger in Michael Boyd’s 2011 production who was almost drunk on the violence said the lines boldly from a swing. McAvoy played Macbeth as if he might change his mind and renounce the violence at anytime, but had been pushed to behave in this way because it was expected by the society he was part of.  It felt that the only way this Macbeth could have survived was to have had some power and control.

Unfortunately, I won’t get chance to see this again, but when I did see it, I enjoyed the experience and relished the chance to sit on stage and be in the middle of the action.

Further Information, Previews and Reviews–Making-bloody-mess-Shakespeares-Macbeth.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

Review: Macbeth starring James McAvoy, Trafalgar Studio 1, London – Reviews – Theatre & Dance – The Independent

Hamlet (Crucible Sheffield, September/October 2010)

What I felt about this production of Hamlet was that when it opened it was a very good production and on the last day I saw it, I thought that it was a superb production. I suppose the question here is, is a form of rehearsal be taking place as a production develops beyond previews and through the run and how might an audience feel about this when they are paying the full price for tickets?  In viewing this production at moments through it’s run, I was able to witness its development and it felt like I had observed a company growing together.  The idea of a company learning  together  is what Michael Boyd, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has discussed in relation to his vision of  the RSC ensemble.  In an Interview on RSC web site, Boyd makes the point that the ensemble  ‘learn and make art at the same time’.   The RSC web site also states that  ‘[p]roductions never stop evolving as actors continually gain fresh insights that they feed into the work the audience sees on stage each night’  (  One of the things that really changed  through the run was John Simm’s approach to the early soliloquies in the play, and by the end of the run I thought that he had really nailed them and every word had meaning for him. When I first saw the production, I felt that John Simm and John Nettles’ acting styles were very different and that jarred a little, but when I saw it at the end of the run, I felt that  the two different styles were still apparent, but there was much more of a coherence between the two actors and the way they responded to each other.

Another noticeable thing as the production developed was what seemed to be the reaction to some of the reviews.  I am not sure if this was intentional but some changes I saw were apparent after the reviews were published. For example, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian:

 Simm’s Hamlet smashes his mother’s framed bedside photo of her second husband in the closet scene; yet when John Nettles’s vigorous and lively Claudius enters, he entirely ignores the shattered glass even though it provides further damning evidence of Hamlet’s visceral hatred of him. (Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday 23 September 2010)

I noticed that Nettles started to subtly look down at the broken frame after the first few performances.  Billington also asked, ‘Who are all these people? Why are they speaking these particular lines?’ and it felt that there was a much better coordination in the later performances that I saw.

There are lots of successful performances and examples of stage business in this production.  The cast tends to use the stage space very well. The stage is monochrome and minimal with a  balcony which is used for the battlements. The interior and exterior are represented using the simple device of   windows being brought down for the interior scenes and being raised to reveal trees for the exterior scenes.  The chandeliers come down to represent the state rooms, as in Greg Doran’s Hamlet.  There was some interesting doubling in this production. John Nettles plays both the Claudius and Ghost, and Hugh Ross plays both Polonius and the gravedigger.  In some ways this worked well to emphasise the generational differences between fathers/uncles and sons/daughters/nephews. When playing the ghost John Nettles speaks with a very strange ghost voice.  His appearance in the first act was through the trap, and as the stage is dark and he  slowly appears through the ground.  A nice touch is when the ghost is about to speak when the cock crows and this clearly silences him. It’s obviously a very quick change for John Nettles as he has to appear as Claudius in the next scene.

Hugh Ross gives a solid performance as Polonius and Michelle Docherty as a mature Ophelia.  Adam Foster and Dylan Brown as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a great double act tumbling on stage and then ending up squeezed into both court life and very ill-fitting dull grey suits.  John Nettles delivers a very polished performance in the role of Claudius. Barbara Flynn takes a more traditional approach to playing Gertrude and does not to fill those silences as Penny Downie does in the Greg Doran’s production, and presents Gertrude as a passive observer watching it all go wrong before her.  There is one moment that I liked and that is when  the Gertrude and Claudius share a joke just before the Mousetrap and this clearly disturbs Hamlet which can been in Hamlet’s face. 

Simm’s Hamlet has kind of fidgety twitchy madness. He is on the edge of madness but doesn’t actually fall into madness.  I didn’t think this Hamlet has put on an ‘antic disposition’ and  what we saw in the production was a Hamlet outwardly showing his emotion as well as internalising it.  Simm’s entrance on the stage in 1.2 is a really interesting piece of stage business which really illustrates this approach.  Simm ashen face with red eyes, and clearly grieving,  flings the doors open from clearly another room as if he is looking for a private space away from the formality of the court.  Ophelia follows him, as if  she is trying to  snatch a moment that they can be alone.  Unfortunately the rest of the court are not far behind and we go into Claudius public speech.  I’ve only every seen a Hamlet enter like this before when Kenneth Branagh first played the role on stage in 1988.  Simm’s Hamlet is partly from the court world, but his smart suit is torn, which suggests some form of rebellion.  However, Simm’s Hamlet wants to show his disengagement with the court and  lies on the floor and clearly frustrates Claudius who moves to speak to him first, but has to speak to Laertes, because Hamlet is clearly not going to respond.

Polonius works hard to make sure Hamlet and Ophelia are not left alone.  As characters leave in 1.2, Ophelia tries to stop back but Polonius blocks her way to make sure she is never alone with Hamlet.  Hamlet is clearly shocked to find he is being watched in the nunnery scene.  Simm wasn’t really playing to the audience.  For most of his performance his Hamlet is living in an enclosed stiffing world.  There are two points when Simm’s Hamlet  acknowledges the audience. First  he suggests the audience might be  the  ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’, by gesturing to the audience as he says the line and also notes that  the audience are like the groundlings who might have their ears split if the players shout too much.  However, in working on his performance through the run, Simm seemed to be aiming for perfection and was clearing showing a wider awareness of how the audience was responding to his overall performance.

Alexander Vlahos on John Simm  in his blog, A hit, a very palpable hit, ” I’ve learned so much watching him, a brilliant and generous man who has grown and grown in the sane way we all have.” Clearly working together as a cast for four weeks in a production can only mean that the continual repetition brings polish. What do we want from actors that they company try to retain the same version each night,. Surely it is the joy of watching theatre that a production won’t be the same each night. It is a shame that the reviewers see a production so early and don’t go back at the end as well. The ticket price was very affordable making the going back to see the performance very much part of the theatre going experience.

Reviews and Previews

Hamlet, Crucible theatre, Sheffield, review – T…
John Simm will play Hamlet / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Hamlet, Cruci…
Hamlet, NT Olivier, LondonHamlet, Crucible…
John Simm on playing Hamlet
Hamlet – the rivalry’s the thing – Features, Th…
WOS John Simm on Hamlet
The Guardian review
Further Information
A hit, a very palpable hit (Crucible Hamlet blog)
Interview with Michael Boyd on RSC web site