Macbeth – Belfast International Arts Festival

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Zoë Seaton

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and hereafter King; the story of Macbeth is one ingrained in the minds of schoolchildren across the nation. Encouraged by the infamous three witches of old, the battle-worn Macbeth is tempted into committing heinous acts to further his ends – driven not only by his ambition but that of his wife, Lady Macbeth.

We’ll say this – the uniqueness of this Macbeth’s opening, playing live for a digital audience, alters the lead into the show and demonstrates the intention to conduct a breaking with the fourth wall. Playing with expectations, the production opens with a familiar podium littered with three-word slogans. Announcements of a superstitious virus and of witchcraft tie the show into the present situation and makes for a surprisingly creative hook to grab the audience.

Steadily though, as the referential choices in aesthetics and visual effects conflict with the original narrative, Macbeth stumbles upon the groundwork the team has been laying. The tenacious team delivers an intense script in a short amount of time, and while expected scenes can come across as rushed or compact, the key moments have time to ferment and allow performers the opportunity to play with Shakespeare’s culture-defining words.

The inclusion of the audience through Zoom comes with detriment. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is by no means a cheery tale, drenching itself in bloodshed, treachery and the arcane, but comedic elements are present in the text, and humorous adaptations exist. Not fully committing to naturally integrating the two means director Zoë Seaton’s decision to dip to-and-fro between the two means the humour doesn’t offset the serious nature of the script, indeed stifling moments.

The existential dread and weight of the crown, the deceit and treachery which taints Macbeth’s heart never visualises itself in this production. Dennis Herdman’s tyrannical king evokes an unhinged presence, but never that of a shattered man who strips his morality for power. The direction of the piece, which utilises a multitude of camera angles over Zoom doesn’t help with Herdman’s performance, as the close-ups feel distracting and fail to reinforce the character he is attempting to convey.

To the contrary, Nicky Harley’s gleeful malevolence of Lady Macbeth – the real star of any successful Macbeth adaptation, balances the antagonistic desires with a, dare we say, relatable attitude. Harley uses space keenly to develop Lady Macbeth, contorting herself and bringing an otherwise missing physicality to the performance to communicate her turmoil without mugging into the camera. She holds the production together, propped up by the trio, Lucia McAnespie, Aonghus óg McAnally and Dharmesh Patel who take on the roles of the three witches among others across the tale in various skits.

Additionally, the reliance on these aforementioned skits can come across as a peculiar choice, but it brings a freshness to the show. The press conferences, ‘witch screenings’ and royal waves from the audience leave an impact – the issue is they leave a significantly larger impression than what should be major performances, McAnally and McAnespie in particular diving into the roles with a sense of characterised glee which distracts from the occasional tech slip-up.

Breathing new life into this Shakespearean staple is complicated, and Seaton’s adaptation certainly takes unexpected steps to diversify Macbeth. In parts success is achieved, incorporating humour and a contemporary feel via the Zoom format, but the production struggles with the basics of Macbeth’s character and grasp of the language.

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Information on the event can be sourced here.

Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Written by Anton Chekov

Directed by Ian Rickson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everything’s the same, but worse” – Uncle Vanya’s opening sentiments reflect a great many thoughts across the nation, as the ennui of our provincial lives shrink in perception as the world shutters itself inward. Ever since its debut in Moscow in 1899, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya emerged as a staple of the theatrical and literary culture for its frankness in life’s pragmatic outlooks and pangs of romance. Now Ian Rickson returns to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre to create a film version of his production of Uncle Vanya, which opened at the beginning of the year, for the BBC.

Sensationally sentimental, Rickson’s direction and interpretation of the Russian classic takes an intoxicatingly personal approach to the volatile nature bureaucracy has on the lives of workers. The rub being, it’s too safe: too soppy in moments and he doesn’t sharpen the knife enough to hurt where it needs to. The lament of wasted time bites for some and every character in one way or another, lose something, be it a home or a loved one or their grip on the fleeting happiness they had.

The broken heart at the centre of this is, of course, Vanya and Toby Jones brings decisive delivery, once more demonstrating how utterly undervalued Jones is as a performer. His Vanya is not only a bag of histrionic nerves but has an earthy jovial charm which feels authentically rustic. This is a Vanya who carries the estate on his shoulders, and Jones emphasises the weight, but conveys the attitude and quips Vanya makes to ease some of the burdens effortlessly.

Jones has tremendous co-stars to work with, developing Vanya’s futility of life into a painful reminder that his wasted time is now steadily tightening around his neck – particularly his adoration for Yelena, which clashes with the uncomfortable force of Richard Armitage’s advances as Doctor Astrov. A lynchpin for the men surrounding her, Yelena becomes a catalyst of sorts, though understated, leaning into the humanity and stresses. Rosalind Eleazar centres herself of between the opposing forces.

Pandering, sycophantic and blind sighted, Roger Allam’s Serebryakov surrounds himself with the head-bobbers who would likely feel quite at home in the current Government cabinet. From the stoic, but the revolting upturned nose of Dearbhla Molloy to the simpering, but tragically poetic and engaging Aimee Lou Wood – Uncle Vanya, through these performances, unequivocally demonstrates the unparalleled ferocity in live performance.

Blending into the digital format, the decaying opulence of Rae Smith’s set and Bruno Poet’s lighting design proffers a creative mindset to fuse theatre and screen, though steadily as the production moves forward some shots come straight out of Albert SquareWalford with intense close-ups which oversaturate the melodrama (which in a Chekov play is remarkable). Taken for granted by the camera (the film director is Ross MacGibbon) is the lavishness of the settings, the tainted light capturing the mundaneness of the lives of the residents.

The parallels of the mindless elite sweeping the livelihoods of those around them for a small profit is the lowest of low hanging fruits these days, but Uncle Vanya takes a decidedly less obvious approach in the actions of the few to undermine the many. Instead, there’s a direction which works its way more into the underrunning narrative promoting conservation. Sickly sentimental, Rickson’s production is nonetheless a testament of the stage, and a more than welcome addition to homes across the country.

In selected cinemas from 26 October 2020

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Saint Maud – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed & Written by Rose Glass

UK / 2019 / 84mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a sold-out event for Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, horror seems to be the genre encouraging people back into the world of cinema. Rose Glass’ psychological thriller (a debut piece nonetheless) Saint Maud plummets the audience into the morose and obsessive mindscape of a young, seemingly good-natured nurse as she comes to care for a dying patient. With a redemptive mindset, Maud seeks not only to ease the woman’s suffering body but to care for her ailing spirit.

Full of ritualised obsession, Morfydd Clark’s performance of Maud is unsettling, yet it conjures grounded insecurities, and dare we say, even recognition. Embodying the horror staple of a lurking darkness beneath the unexpected or even mundane, Glass frames Maud as a doormat, complacent and bland.

There’s a rarity with Clark’s performance in so far as how remarkably unhabitual she dimensions herself as Maud. It’s a display of integration, rather than performance, carrying a desperate struggle as an otherwise kind young woman, grappling with severe mental issues. They say that Hell is paved with good intentions – well, Clark makes it so that the audience falls in line behind her choices at first.

Lampooning her career, life and religious intentions, much of the cast find Maud an oddity, but harmless. Perhaps most gravely, so too does her patient Amanda, a once sensational dancer succumbing to the end of her days. Jennifer Ehle’s booze-hounding party girl is a woman ensuring her final hours won’t be spent on medication and stagnation, but filled with frivolity, time with her female partner (Lily Frazer) and the luxury of sin.

And as much as Amanda toys with Maud’s lifestyle choices, the pair form a genuine sense of connection between them, as much as the spider has with its fly. Saint Maud demonstrates its deep-seated physicality and erotic ties with religious obsession and the intimacy of palliative care and nursing. The levels of complexity and warped beauty in Glass’ filmmaking demonstrate an unequivocal understanding of the brilliance in psychological horror.

A masterclass in horror cinema, Ben Fordesman’s framing of the film is uncomfortable and intense. He seems determined to cause distress in the audience, pushing them into unfamiliar situations and angles. While you may suspect this aids in grounding Maud’s reality from her psychosis, the cinematography deftly blurs the line even more.

This blurring of reality is where grazing slip-ups happen, where the psychological nature of the film worries filmmakers that the audience will knot themselves in deciphering. A tiny let-down is that a vast portion of Saint Maud concerns Maud’s past, never divulging the truth and wishing the audience to put together a jigsaw which is sadistically missing a few components. Occasionally, the imagery stretches beyond the scope of the film, as the delusions Maud suffers eke themselves from the realms of believability and into a more schlocky horror aspect in reinforcing how unhinged from reality her obsessions are.

This said, the meticulously well-crafted palette lends itself so intensely into shadow manipulation that when the scenes set up tension, they delivers in subtle ways. It isn’t solely the eyes which are forced into uneasiness; Saint Maud’s soundtrack is a composition of hellscapes, written by angels. A slice of the film blends an end-of-days party album with distortions of divine opulence, scratching disc-jockeys and warped air-raid sirens. Disconcerting, Glass does all they can to leave the audience writhing as they watch the movie unfold.

A reformation of contemporary horror, Saint Maud is the unlikely saviour of the genre in testing times. Glass’ unwillingness to sully the film with cheap novelty, instead ingraining its twisting gnarled roots in a religious sub-text, make for a visually exquisite embrace of eroticised religion and a near-ideal eighty-minute horror classic. 

Screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 9 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review