Many of us seated (and indeed standing) could not have predicted the significance of watching Macbeth in the Globe on the eve of 23 June 2016. Shakespeare’s play exploring political turbulence and a clashing of English and Scottish forces was unnervingly prescient of the Vote Leave victory and the troubles it will create.
But despite this unsettling political contemporaneity, Iqbal Khan’s latest production of Macbeth is an intelligent concoction of solemnity, terror, treachery and surprisingly, at points, humour.
The play opens with a haunting reveal of four performers from underneath an expansive black sheet. This quartet of females embody the “weird sisters” that will later prophesise the plot of the performance through song and dark, atonal music composed by Jocelyn Pook. The portrayal of the witches is one of the most original elements of Iqbal’s reinterpretation. These performers are more like interpretative dancers than actors. They glide mysteriously across the smoke-enveloped stage, parting, merging and assembling decapitated body parts to form intangible visions of prophetic sorcery.
This sinister atmosphere is consistent throughout the performance, particularly upon Macbeth’s coronation, when a combination of theatrical solemnity, musical gravity and austere, brutalist staging creates a suitable heralding of a new reign of tyranny and terror (a foreshadowing which 48% of the population can probably wholeheartedly empathise with).
However, in true Globe spirit there are also moments of humour that engage the audience and prevent the production from becoming all doom and gloom. This comic streak is most effective during the Porter’s monologue, in which Nadia Albina captivates the audience with her incredible propensity to incite laughter. In particular her references to contemporary issues – including the EU referendum and comparing Donald Trump to Lucifer – have the entire audience applauding. Yet despite the success of Albina’s hilarity, some of the humour in the play is not befitting of the bleak tone that should be maintained in of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.
The entire cast of Khan’s Macbeth are talented sorcerers, conjuring believable, engaging scenes on stage that transport the audience from twenty-first century London to historic Scotland. Ray Fearon as Macbeth is an excellent casting decision. Fearon expertly embodies a man tormented by power and guilt, whilst also creating empathy for what seems a majorly dislikeable character. Freddie Stewart’s portrayal of Malcolm – The Prince of Cumberland – is also highly commendable. Stewart’s calm, stalwart, rebellious rigour is merged with an ability to deliver Shakespearean lines with intuitive ease. However, Tara Fitzgerald’s Lady Macbeth is somewhat disappointing. Her interpretation of the role is not as strong or psychotically disturbing as one would hope, and often incites laughter instead of fear.
In her foreword to Macbeth’s programme, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Emma Rice states that her Wonder Season features plays that “seem fresh and vital as we struggle to find a path through modern life”, and Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth definitely delivers on this promise. Although not infallible, this eclectic new production offers many levels on which an audience member can engage, whether they be political, cultural, artistic, aesthetic or narrative.
Macbeth is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 1 October. For more information visit the Shakespeare’s Globe website.