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.

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