What is the real essence of Macbeth, and how is this conveyed as effectively as possible in a short and powerful contemporary play? Theatre company Filter has thoroughly explored this question for their rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy, creating a thoroughly modern version that is as aware of Shakespeare’s original work as of the reception and interpretation his work has received through the ages.
In Filter’s adaptation, the innovative use of music and sound effects, composed by Tom Haines, is as important as Shakespeare’s famous lines. The entire play is staged by six actors and a musician. All actors are musicians too, operating an eclectic mix of electronic and manual instruments. This impressively large setup of instruments is the only scenery used in the play, which is visually carried entirely by the actors, props, and lighting. Since the musical instruments occupy the centre of the stage, the actors at times swerve out into the audience or stand in front of the stage for entire scenes or dialogues.
The audience is warned when entering the theatre: there will be loud noises, the show is recommended for an audience aged 14+. This warning is more disconcerting than is necessary, as it suggests the audience will be confronted with an obnoxious cacophony, which this show is not. The music and sound effects are very well timed and highly effective, making it possible to convey the grim atmosphere of Macbeth in fewer words. This leads to a fast-paced, thrilling performance, in which the lack of an intermission in the 85-minute production goes entirely unnoticed. There are no scene cuts: the music flows from one scene into another, creating coherence rather than transitions.
Ferdy Roberts is an excellent Macbeth, who manages to evoke sympathy from his audience even as we see him head towards inevitable self-inflicted destruction. He brings his lines with a contemporary diction and attitude without making this clash with Shakespeare’s language, an admirable feat that is not always achieved in contemporary updates of Shakespeare. Poppy Miller complements Roberts well as an intriguing Lady Macbeth. Her mental disturbance is clear from the moment she first speaks, her inner torment made audible and visible, whereas that of Macbeth is expressed in a much more suppressed manner. As the audience sympathises with Macbeth but is appalled by Lady Macbeth’s insane hypocrisy, it makes one wonder why these two got married in the first place.
The other actors all play multiple parts, yet there are hardly any physical changes that acknowledge these character transitions. Paul Woodson, who plays both Duncan and Malcolm, wears a white shirt as Duncan and a blue one as Malcolm. Victoria Moseley, on the other hand, undergoes no dress changes at all as she plays both Banquo and the doctor. This leads to some confusing moments as some actors do not create obvious differences in mannerisms between two characters, making them only recognizable through vocatives or to people who know the original play well – Banquo and the doctor have exactly the same voice and attitude.
It is not only the setting of the play that is updated, with electronic music and actors wearing jeans. The content has been added to as well, creating a hybrid of mostly Shakespeare’s lines and a surprising addition. The other textual source used for the play is none other than a critical reading guide to Shakespeare, from which Macbeth is made to read after he has committed the murder. It is only when he reads about his deeds and their consequences in the third person that he truly realizes what he has done. Though one may wonder why this source is being used – it at first comes across as if the actors feel the need to explain what has just happened in plainer English, something which is definitely not necessary – it also emphasises the wider cultural impact of Macbeth, and the context through which most people will have first encountered the play.
The ending of the play is original, but not entirely convincing. Macbeth’s death is presented as a sound effect without any accompanying visuals. After this moment Roberts is still standing on stage, a confusing arrangement. Woodson, as Malcolm, concludes the play with Shakespeare’s lines in the most casual way possible, creating a light-hearted ending. It is a surprising choice for a play that has just rushed by at such an immense pace.
‘Macbeth’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 28th February; for more information please visit the Playhouse website.