Many seem to miss the fact that Macbeth is pretty far-fetched. Sometimes our understanding of supernatural elements borders on the mundane: “Of course a dagger appears out of nowhere. Of course witches tell Macbeth his future. Ah yes – a ghost. Saw one last night!” I suppose this is a result of the post-Shakespearean normalisation of fantasy. Ghosts? We’ve got a world full of talking fish, wizards, teenage vampires and superheroes. Ghosts seem kind of, well, ordinary. But really, Macbeth is no Hamlet or Othello: it asks for a great suspension of disbelief.
The supernatural elements of Macbeth would appear on the surface to sit well with the medium of puppetry, given that the essence of that form is the animation of the inanimate object. Both puppetry and the supernatural create illusory doubles that ask a very real question through an opposing idea – what is the difference between a human and an object? And what is ‘natural’? These two questions, while not the same, are certainly related, and find their basis in the central problem of what it means to be human, and the methods by which we elevate ourselves from the animal, vegetable or mineral worlds.
Therefore it’s appropriate that Little Angel’s production of Macbeth chooses the form of an animal – the bird – to unite these two prongs of animation and supernatural into one cohesive instrument. Watching these false cocks strut and fret about the intimate theatre, their beaks protruding greedily and aggressively as they proclaim the dark machinations of the thick plot against the graceful swans, rather brings home the point that whilst we may make this distinction between animals and objects, the reality is that this is entirely artificial. Just as we may humanise an animal or anthropomorphise an object, the human being, at times, becomes object and/or animal. (There is even a case in the text for them becoming vegetables, as Birnam Wood grows legs and wanders over to Dunsinane.)
That the virtually unlimited potential for this concept is not fully exploited by a tight, workmanlike show, I put down to its surprising insistence to deliver text. Given that, perhaps even more surprisingly, this text is pre-recorded, a lot hinges on James Hesford’s carefully orchestrated Gothic score, the poetry of gesture, and the synchronisation of all of that to deliver vitality to each scene and trajectory to the story. Deliver it does – to a point. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that it robs the play of its primary tool for overcoming the suspension of disbelief – the humanity in the text – lending weight instead to its already gross spectacle.
The play is at its most successful when it works with pure visual and aural metaphor, such as an exquisite representation of the slaughtering of Macduff’s castle. His “pretty chickens and their dam. At one fell swoop?” are literally chickens, and their death a simple white handkerchief with stains of blood placed over the nest, and a slow passing into dormancy: a fascinating arm-wrestle – “What beast was’t, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me?” – that again employs a white sheet in a kind of tug-of-war, or final battle in a brutal cock-fight. But too often gesture and score are left to articulate a pre-recorded life, its own inanimate presence forcefully re-inscribing its omnipotence. This is no slight on the voice actors: it’s a natural consequence of disconnection, perhaps itself of necessity born, but ultimately releasing the audience from empathy with the fantastic.
Macbeth is playing at the Little Angel Theatre until 10 November. For more information and tickets, see the Little Angel Theatre website.