THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH at Southwark Playhouse
“It is a whirlwind, whirligig production.”
You wander into the space at Southwark Playhouse at your peril, like an outsider may unwittingly stray through the gates of Bedlam. Flabbergast Theatre’s take on ‘The Scottish Play’ eschews Jacobean pomp, placing us somewhere in an uncertain dusty battlefield. A prolonged pre-show has the company writhing demonically, not yet fully formed. Caked in clay they are yet to be moulded into their characters. It is bestial and raw. With fractured moans and tics, elastic limbs and fits they writhe insect-like. Repetitive. Like nomadic animals in captivity – indicative of the madness into which we are soon to be plunged. “’Tis time, ‘tis time”. It doesn’t take us long at all to be swamped in their madness. We are already there. It is primitive, tribal. A mix of middle earth, pre-history, Norse warmongering, druid dystopia. A heightened apocalypse. Taiko rhythms deafen the senses, and the witches proclaim their prophecies in unison. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
We wonder where we can go from here. The extraordinary opening cannot afford to dip, but has it got the energy to rise. Its sheer strength proves to be the one weakness that keeps the performance on the one level throughout. Thrilling as it is, it is relentless, leaving us wanting more of the stillness. More relief. But when those moments do come, they are truly striking, and the combined talents of this cohesive ensemble shine through. Attuned and in tune, the performers interact as one: their individual backgrounds adding rich flavours that “in the caldron boil and bake”. Physical theatre, puppetry, clown work, percussion, ritual, mythology, European folk music, and medieval chant are brought together under artistic director Henry Maynard’s steely direction.
Maynard is also tonight’s Macbeth (not always – some cast share roles and interchange on a nightly basis). A rich-voiced, booming presence not quite emasculated by Briony O’Callaghan’s Lady Macbeth. O’Callaghan, vampiric in her thirst for blood and status, gives a striking performance, both baiting and taming Maynard’s feral Macbeth. The supernatural nature of Shakespeare’s play is powerfully portrayed, often relying on just the performers’ bodies. Deep red wine symbolises the copious spilt blood. At times the wine and blood are as one, especially when Simon Gleave beautifully crackles as Banquo’s ghost, spitting and pouring claret-hued and venomous fear into the veins of Macbeth. Flabbergast are not afraid to go out on a limb, while remaining loyal to Shakespeare’s text. Comic relief comes courtesy of Dale Wylde’s Porter; a rubber-faced, New-Age Mr Bean at the gates of the castle.
Multi-rolling Daniel Chrisostomou comes into his own, particularly in Act Two as Macduff, plotting his revenge, while Kyll Thomas-Cole’s eye-catching Malcolm teases and tests his motives. One of the more riveting scenes, on a par with the stillness of the soliloquies. These moments, though, struggle to be remembered once the panoramic bombast subsides. The symmetry, synchronicity and physicality of the performance is undeniably exhilarating. It does not probe too deeply into the sexuality or the chemistry between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In today’s climate one expects the subject matter inherent in the text – what does it mean to be a man, or a woman? – to be milked for all its worth and given the ‘correct’ treatment. This show, deliberately or otherwise, admiringly leaves it up to the audience, respecting intelligence by not spooning out popular judgement. The resonance stands on its own.
It is a whirlwind, whirligig production. One that captures the ethos of “Macbeth”, even if the story is one of the casualties, strewn among the body count. Yet it is a powerful, thrilling and quite extraordinary interpretation. A unique, sensory overload that can probably be heard across Southeast London, but should definitely be experienced up close.
Reviewed on 16th March 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Michael Lynch
Previously reviewed at Southwark Playhouse: