Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: 'Macbeth' at the Brockley Jack, 6th April 2017

Macbeth reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

There's a strange forced jollity to The AC Group's Macbeth. Sure, the foreground is 'yer usual parade of ambition, violence, guilt and madness but in the background people strut around with instruments, strumming out jaunty tunes that at first seem at odds with the Thane of Glamis' bloody ascent to the throne of Scotland. They play as if they know everything is rotten, but maybe if they can just sustain the party long enough everything will work out okay.

It's an uneasy interpretation suited to our uneasy times. You sense that the servants and musicians of King Macbeth's court are fully aware that their new leader is lapsing into paranoid delusion, and are trying to figure out at what point they should abandon ship and save their own skins. I imagine this situation to be playing out in the White House right now.

Macbeth has always been one of the most accessible Shakespeare plays - the witches, scheming and bloody murders entertaining 2017 audiences as much as they did the groundlings of 1606. It's a narrative that can sustain a remarkable amount of streamlining and has at its core a juicy philosophical pondering on prophecy: did the Weird Sister's message to Macbeth spell out an unavoidable future or did they kick off a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Here we see a trimmed down, two hour production that whistles energetically through the narrative, produced with a obvious focus on emphasising physical movement and adding texture through live music. William Ross-Fawcett's Macbeth is an appropriately frayed, proud man who, nonetheless, finds himself on a murderous path and feels duty-bound to see it to its end. Amelia Clay's Lady Macbeth is a sleek, stylish creature - almost but not quite able to suppress her humanity and falling apart in effectively moving fashion. Both are deliver their lines in a Scottish accent- which you might think would be a given in 'the Scottish play', but in my experience is actually rather rare.

They both deliver competent, moving performances but for my money the best of the show comes in the supporting cast, each of whom plays multiple roles. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain, primarily playing Malcolm (but also a Witch and Macbeth's assassin), has a slightly hoarse throat, but makes it work for her: a strained voice is entirely appropriate given what these characters are going through. Nell Hardy as MacDuff (and another Witch) is a performance it's difficult to tear your eyes away from. Hardy was the best thing in Pandemonium Productions' Alice in Wonderland and Fear of the Dark, and her angular body language and striking physical presence communicate precisely as much as her dialogue does.

There's a clear drive for austerity in Thomas Attwood's direction and Reuben Speed's stage design. There's no scenery save for a couple of gauze sheets and hardly any props. This has mixed results. On one hand the existing architecture of the Brockley Jack's theatre quietly evokes a medieval hall in miniature - on the other (what I'm guessing is) a restricted budget saps impact from key moments. 

So, swords and daggers are replaced with Stanley knives, which look too small on stage to properly intimidate. The final act swordfights eschew weapons completely, with the actors apparently instructed to do faux-martial arts. Though the actors commit to this, it's doesn't really look like the characters really want to kill one another. Similarly, it's a really small thing, but when MacDuff tosses what's supposed to be the severed head of Macbeth onto the stage it's clearly just a light ball of rags. I want the weight of the head to thump onto the stage - a grisly full stop to the chaos.

It leaves The AC Group's Macbeth as a compelling theatrical experience that never bores, yet teeters on the edge of real quality. A couple of nips and tucks - or simply better props - and this'd be a worthy mini Shakespeare. As it is it's 'merely' good.

Macbeth is at the Brockley Jack until 22 April. Tickets here.

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