Tobacco Factory, Bristol – until 7 April 2018
All hail the new Factory Ensemble, swooping in and playing the spring season at Tobacco Factory Theatres that used to be the preserve of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. In many ways Macbeth feels like more of what Andrew Hilton previously instigated, a young director getting the opportunity to make a mark on Bill’s greatest tragedies.
So after Polina Kalinina’s Romeo and Juliet and Richard Twyman’s Othello, we now get Adele Thomas’ take on the Scottish play. Of the three, this is by far the least revelatory. Though it boasts some strong ideas – the witches are a genuine skin crawling delight – and one superb performance from Katy Stephens as Lady M, it is, all told, a solid rather than enlightening evening.
Its central concept makes a mark, Anisha Fields has created a Mad Max-style wasteland of burnt tires mushed into soil; an industrial war zone where soldiers in fatigue enter soaked in dark clarets of blood. It’s a visual look similar not only to George Miller’s tetralogy but also to Ralph Fiennes’ filmed version of Coriolanus, but the macho atmosphere is not expanded on in the acting, the warriors here distinctly poetic rather than road warriors playing out gladiatorial games.
Jonathan McGuiness’ Macbeth struggles to bring out the poetry within the role, distinctly underwhelming in the early scenes where Macbeth’s humanity, the poet of the soul encased in warrior body, gradually darkens as the witches’ prophesy set him on the path to destruction.
From the moment he is alone with Stephens, he is like a mouse ready to be consumed by a python, this is a relationship whose power dynamics are clearly in the court of the fairer sex. He improves as the evening goes on and Macbeth’s tyranny takes hold, though he never possesses the chill factor that the best performers bring to the role. It’s only in his ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ where he finally seems to get on top of the material, here we get glimpses of the man finally returning to take over the increasingly dark shell.
Stephens Lady Macbeth is the reason to buy a ticket. Here is an actress performing at the very top of her (considerable) game. Shakespeare provides a challenge for all lead actors, providing so many facets that no performer can ever hope of giving a definitive performance. Stephens’s interpretation plays more notes than most. This is a women defined by her lack of child, as she cuddles Banquo’s son we see the women she could have been in a parallel universe. It’s the lack of motherhood in her life that drives her towards a different purpose: family is all; her reasons for pushing her husband is driven by her love for him, needling him into doing the bloody deed to give him the advancement she thinks he deserves. As she begins to lose him, first in the banquet scene when he envisions the ghosts of his victims, later when he coldly shuts her out, we see the last strand of sanity leave her. The sleepwalking scene, never played better, has a sad state of inevitability to it, a women who has lost the final thimble of family she has left. Her technique, enhanced by a number of years at the RSC is flawless, her clarity and beat on the iambic a lesson to all students on how to speak Shakespeare. I’ve seen a few Lady M’s but Stephens has got closer than any I’ve seen to toppling Dench as the Queen to rule them all.
It’s inevitable perhaps that other performances get left in the shade, with no one really getting much stage time to make an impression, though former SATTF regular Simon Armstrong makes a cool and dead eyed assassin alongside his stern Duncan.
Thomas’s production has conjured witches that unnerve the senses, faceless spectres who incant in what sounds an Easter European gypsy tongue, hauntingly amplified around the theatre. A silent epilogue, inserted into the production, is enough to keep you up at night as they silently engulf their chosen on their way to make a brand new prophesy. She is also good on giving action to the psychological elements, the wiping of hands a near constant through the action as characters continually wipe blood from them. For all her good work though the two hardest scenes in this play are bodged, the porter scene dropped in and out as quickly as possible like director and performer had no idea what to do with it and the dreaded England scene still dragging on interminably and holding up the action North of the Border. There is little shade here, what humour there is in the text dropped in favour of building up this bleak world.
Macbeth is an obvious box office draw for the theatre, which is particularly important as they go about renovating the space and adding a studio to their venue again, and the work is fundamentally solid which should go down well with the school groups. It’s hard to shake the feeling it’s all a little safe but one propped up by a performance that Bristol should be talking about for years.