Pop-up Globe, September 9
This was always going to be the test. For nearly 140 years theatre audiences have enjoyed the endless possibilities created by electric stage lights, and, paradoxically, no play has benefitted more than Macbeth, the darkest investigation of the human psyche ever made. Via such lighting modern audiences have grown used to the Scottish play’s stark contrasts, murky shadows and half-seen deeds. To witness it in the broad daylight of a matinee would reveal the Pop-up Globe’s ability to recreate the horror that audiences apparently felt in 1606, without the aid of inky depths and sudden shafts of frightening illumination.
The upshot? Other than the spectral 1948 film adaptation directed by and starring Orson Wells, this Tom Mallaburn production may be the best Macbeth I’ve seen. The wonder of this is not just that it works admirably without lighting effects (although with dry ice), but that it does so despite the first two acts containing several limp performance moments. Ultimately it grabs us by the throat and drags us deep beneath the tide of blood and evil.
Blood? God, Almighty. “Blood will have blood,” our protagonist declares, and never before at interval have I encountered audience members washing stage-blood from their persons.
The power to carve grim atmosphere out of sunny afternoon air was instantly established by the three witches (Mia Landgren, Julia Guthrey and Romy Hooper) drawing us into a world where Macbeth’s doom is laid out like a feast, just waiting to be gnawed to the bone. Yet Matu Ngaropo’s Macduff, Nigel Langley’s Ross, Blake Kubena’s Malcolm and even Amanda Billing’s Lady Macbeth were initially too flaccid in a play where tautness should rule from first to last (the Porter’s scene apart, here amusing played by Greg Johnson with a serious bladder-control malfunction).
Yet ratcheting up the tension from his first entry was Stephen Lovatt in the title role. He catches all Macbeth’s nuanced fluxes of motivation, beginning with his potent love and lust for his wife begetting the decision to oblige her ambition – one with which his imagination has only flirted. Indeed imagination plays no more crucial part in any Shakespeare play, and the off-stage murder of Duncan (Johnson, also), as with Greek tragedy, sets adrift the audience’s imagination on a sea of dread and darkness.
While Lovatt’s performance sharpens further after committing this murder, as he is tormented by a moral anguish that – crucially, for the play to work – we share, Billing seems excessively unperturbed by events, as if they have picked Duncan’s pockets rather than his stopped his heart. And Lovatt has the capacity to continually raise the stakes, as – after his sumptuous investiture as king – in his soliloquy justifying Banquo’s death, and in his instructions to the murderers for Banquo’s son, Fleance, too, to join the mounting count of corpses.
The vision of Banquo’s bloody ghost (Jason Will) shakes us up as much as it does Macbeth, and the witches’ final appearance would trouble the sleep of Mother Teresa. But they are as nothing compared with the murder of Lady Macduff and her son, which are best left undescribed.
Ngaropo is a superior Macduff once shredded by this news, and Billing has flashes of a sad, mad, seductive, fascinating Lady Macbeth. Even so, her portrayal never scales the heights that Lovatt reaches in his great, pithy, final soliloquy, when he knows the game is up, and declares life “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying…” – and then he pauses until the tears well in your eyes, and finally whispers, “nothing.”
Until October 21.