Review: ‘Macbeth’

Staging a well-known Shakespeare drama in his anniversary year is beginning to seem something of a madness — and it’s only March. Having been given Hollywood treatment last year by Justin Kurzel, Macbeth is being, or has been, staged at the Young Vic, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, London Globe…the list continues. With this amount of coverage, how do you bring something new to a play as famous as Macbeth?

Out of Chaos’s answer to this, rising admirably to the challenge, is to cut the running time by half, and the number of actors to just two. For a play as full of people (and corpses) as Macbeth, this is no mean feat. By necessity, such a pared back version of the text has to be extremely innovative to stop it falling apart at the seams. And with slightly less charismatic actors than Troels Hagen Findsen and Paul O’Mahony, who together comprised the entirety of ‘Two Man Macbeth’, the project could easily have been a disaster. But combined, they were something of a force of nature, pulling off one of the most virtuosic pieces of acting I’ve seen in a long time.

‘Two Man Macbeth’ is undoubtedly a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that worked well here. Having only two actors generated humour within one of Shakespeare’s bleakest scripts, just for the sheer absurdity of having one man play Macduff and the entirety of the Scottish army simultaneously. Add to this a distinct faithlessness with regard to the text, inserting modern-language interjections and cutting much of the original material, and the whole show became laced with a deliciously irreverent humour. This was one of the things that I loved most about this production — it was obvious how much fun Findsen and O’Mahony were having with their material. These are serious actors not taking themselves too seriously, confident enough in their abilities to turn Macbeth inside out and make it work.

Having only two actors meant that in order for the plot to be understandable, an extraordinary amount of attention to detail was required. Characters were differentiated through stature and accents (and by incorporating stage directions that announce the entry and exit of characters). The fluidity and consistency with which they managed to switch between different personas was remarkable, and only a slight change in accent or mannerisms would have rendered the story incomprehensible. Findsen and O’Mahony were often portraying multiple on-stage characters at the same time, one particularly entertaining scene involving O’Mahony playing Ross and Macbeth having a conversation with each other. I suspect that if you had no previous acquaintance with Macbeth it still would have been fairly confusing, but Out of Chaos had judged their audience well — a Two Man Macbeth probably isn’t the type of show you book for your introduction to Shakespeare. A seemingly obvious but crucial addition was that both actors always addressed the empty space where the absent characters supposedly stood. By the time that Macbeth starts to hallucinate daggers and the body of Banquo, I was so used to conceptualising a body in an empty space that his imaginings seemed to take on a more corporeal form, although no projections or props were used to give tangible form to his dreams.

‘Two Man Macbeth’ is something of a misnomer, though, because the audience were effectively employed as extras, playing both marginal characters and witches. The drama opened with a game of Chinese whispers, until the whole auditorium was filled with the sound of the witches’ opening lines. Essentially, the entire audience was used as a sound effect. The ethereal and intangible nature of the witches’ presence was encapsulated by the lines ‘When the hurly-burly’s done’ and ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ travelling around between audience members, placing each person at the centre of the sound far more effectively than simply using stereo speakers. A sensitivity to the possibilities of music and sound design characterised the entire production, with a particular highlight being Lady Macbeth’s ‘Unsex me now’ speech, underscored by a persistent pulsing as Findsen seemed to undergo a visible transformation into a personality capable of murder. There was only one moment where this integration of music and text slipped on to the wrong side of daring, when Macbeth declaimed part of a speech in time to a contemporary soundtrack, which was thankfully brief.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about this adaptation was the sheer speed with which it was performed. The set design was sparse but obviously meticulously planned, paired with a careful choreography that allowed the actors to move the heavy pieces of set swiftly and repeatedly. Likewise, the script was hurtled through at a breakneck speed, to the point where it became something of a whistle-stop tour of its most famous speeches. This gave the production at least half of its edge, as seeing two men whip through 90 minutes of acting without a single verbal or physical slip is a considerable entertainment in and of itself. Almost inevitably though, this came at the expense of some of the psychological depth that Macbeth can offer. Macbeth’s first monologue, where he starts to undergo the transition from faithful friend to murderer, was sped through at an alarming rate which didn’t allow time to process what he was actually saying. While impressive, the unrelenting verbal onslaught sometimes made me long for a change of pace. Where contrasts in speed were incorporated, such as when it dawns on Macbeth that his ravings about Banquo have been witnessed by an entire dining hall, they were extraordinarily effective. The lack of actors on the stage made me forget that there is an entire audience watching Macbeth’s very public mental unravelling, so I was completely lost in his feverish visions. When Lady Macbeth calls him back to reality, O’Mahony simply stopped, all his acting done through his eyes alone. It gave me time to react alongside his character, and realise the enormity of what he has just done. Conversely, the murder of Macduff’s household didn’t have the emotional impact that it could, as its announcement was over in a matter of seconds.

As a piece of entertainment, ‘Two Man Macbeth’ is flawless. Findsen and O’Mahony didn’t put a foot wrong, and their skill as actors is beyond question. Nonetheless I couldn’t help wonder, why Macbeth, other than its popularity? What does this approach add to Macbeth as opposed to any other play? Why not ‘Two Man Tempest’? It didn’t make me think differently about the text, or draw out some subtlety that I hadn’t noticed before — but that’s not what this production was trying to do. What it did, it did utterly brilliantly, and in terms of virtuosity, commitment, and energy, Out of Chaos’s interpretation cannot be faulted.

Leah Broad

Out of Chaos are currently touring the UK; for future dates, please visit their website. ‘Macbeth’ played at the Old Fire Station in Oxford on Tuesday 1st March.

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