This is perhaps the most definitive proof yet that ‘The Scottish Play’ is cursed. Zoom has been the repurposed vessel for theatre’s desperate effort to maintain output over lockdown, and now Big Telly Theatre has ambitiously attempted to mount a condensed performance of Macbeth. Its wildly excessive visual gimmickry produces some striking images, but completely overwhelms the potency of the language and the overripe performances.
The play charts the tragic downfall of the eponymous war hero, driven further into mania by his own powerlust exacerbated by his ruthless wife. However, this production decides to join Macbeth in unravelling into madness; indeed, the real murder is the treatment of one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays.
Shakespeare’s structure follows a clearly defined five-act model, but adaptor-director Zoe Seaton’s version muddles and overcomplicates it with bizarre period and setting transitions. Scenes from the play are interposed with a modern government briefing, the cast’s front doors open out into backdrops of Jacobean streets, there are sudden references to Aleppo and Syria, and music choices include ‘We Are The Champions’ overlayed with 1920s footage. It screeches into a garish climax of risible incredulity when the apparitions garble their prophecies in a fancy-dress cabaret dancing to EDM.
If you don’t know where to turn, it seems the cast doesn’t either. While Dennis Herdman’s performance as Macbeth is the most engaging, his delivery is frustratingly inconsistent, misplacing emphasis and erratically paced. Nicky Harley disappointingly resorts to the shouty, histrionic wife, never channelling any of the obsessive devotion or sinisterly coercive influence over her husband which make the character so unsettling. The rest of the cast follow this trend, using exaggerated gestures which may be for the benefit of the camera, but only reinforce the soap opera melodrama.
Despite this overpitched extreme, some of the creative choices pay off for the Zoom audience. A red filter nicely illustrates the sense of blood saturating Macbeth’s consciousness, the camera is effectively used as the dagger Macbeth hallucinates, and audience members clearly enjoy watching themselves positioned as banquet guests. However, it too often gets carried away with extreme close-ups redolent of ‘The Blair Witch Project’, or animated bats flying across Macbeth’s face (even more jarring when he’s describing crows).
There’s unfortunately always too much going on, and it feels more like an experiment in Zoom’s capability. These recent makeshift Zoom productions have worked best when enriching the intimacy of monologues, but this exposes the limitations when visuals overpower a play’s language. This performance leaves you sympathising with Lady Macbeth’s cry “to bed” – after such a relentless bombardment of confusion, who could blame her?
Macbeth headlined Belfast International Arts Festival from 14 – 17 October, before a virtual transfer to Oxford as a co-production with Creation Theatre until 31 October. For more information and tickets, see Big Telly Theatre online.