Review: ‘The Devil Speaks True’

The Devil Speaks True, previously running at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, is an immersive adaptation of the untold story of Macbeth — that of his friend Banquo. He has been immortalised in literature as a mere ghost at a banquet, rather than a multi-faceted character in his own right. And so this is something that Goat & Monkey have tried to rectify, by violently displacing Banquo into a world of modern warfare, aurally dragging us in to his world to explore themes of trust, betrayal, humanity, and war.

‘PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.’ The continual reinforcement of this assurance of normality was fed into my ears through headphones — the voice of a former officer who served in Afghanistan and is a sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The voices of Macbeth and his lover, allies, and enemies were interwoven with true, first-person accounts of clearing IEDs from roadsides, the oppressive sound of buzzing flies, and an atmosphere of prickling heat as a war-torn wilderness was projected on to a screen. Then Banquo, our protagonist, took centre-stage. Played emotively by Neil Callaghan, he was our visual oasis in a performance which repeatedly enveloped the audience in darkness, often for long periods of time. Throughout the show, my eyes searched for light and visual stimuli in order to have something to cling on to, as the darkness had a habit of creating an inescapable sense of unease and displacement. The more the darkness dragged on, the more I needed to see something, anything, to remember that I still existed in a time and place that was real and tangible, and not just the never-ending black — not dissimilar to how it must feel to suffer from PTSD.

Lines from Macbeth were fed through to us as radio comms, interspersed with further voices of soldiers and real news reports, and as we watched Banquo react in real time. It gave me a sensory connection with the character as I heard what he heard, saw what he saw, and thus provoked to feel what he felt.

But there weren’t just auditory provocations — at one point, as we sat in total darkness, a sweet, soapy smell filled the room. What was it? Why now? What did it mean? I felt the warm draft of someone pass by my face in the darkness, as the blades of a Chinook whirred violently in my ears.

Then we returned to another soldier’s account of his release from captivity, describing himself as attempting to return to normality as ‘a block of ice which slowly thaws.’ Banquo looked down into an up-lit bowl of water, which shone his rippled reflection back at him, and as he splashed his face we were plunged yet again into the darkness, more stories, more unsettling sounds — ‘How now, what news?’/‘Who’s there?’/‘I dreamt last night of three weird sisters…’

Suddenly the lights came up, and for the first time, a second figure was onstage. Lights down, then back up, and Banquo was alone, struggling to stand up, touching gingerly as the centre of his sternum where his stab wound was fresh and bleeding. Struggling to live, and struggling to die. Suspended in a demi-world, bathed in red light, it was then that he went to the banquet, and our ears filled with the protestations of the panicked and guilty Macbeth, as he also saw the figure that stood before us, voiceless and gut-wrenching.

There were many things to love about this show, Callaghan’s evocative performance being one, and the use of lighting and sound was innovative, exciting, and unexpected. As always, I am thankful that the Old Fire Station has the courage and ingénue to give new work, always with talent and potential, the chance to be seen in Oxford. However further consideration of the plot structure, and the interweaving of the true accounts from soldiers alongside the lines of the play, were sorely needed. The production was most effective was when there was a direct relationship between what a soldier had experienced and felt in real life, and a particular moment in Macbeth. But this only happened once or twice, so the two elements seemed distinct and unrelated. When utilised effectively, the real and the fictional became beautiful mirrors for one another, and I love that Shakespeare can still be used to great effect to interrogate universal issues which still affect us today. There is a huge amount of potential for this concept, in combination with the headphones and immersion format, but frustratingly the two just weren’t ‘married’ enough for a cohesive and earth-shaking piece of theatre — which I have complete faith that Goat & Monkey would be more than capable of achieving. I will follow their work closely and certainly go to see future productions by this exciting company.

Justine Malone

For more information about Goat & Monkey, please visit their website.

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