The Lazarus Theatre Company's take on Macbeth attempts to shed new light on the play via marrying the traditional and the contemporary, writes Alia Butt
Like much of Shakespeare’s work, Macbeth can be seen as a commentary on today’s society, as well as an allegorical account of the time in which it was written. On the one hand it illuminates a particular moment in history, when things began to change drastically. It was most likely written in 1603, when James I became King of England. In England, there was a shift: the well-established feudal system was being challenged by an emerging bond between the old landowners and a new commercial class resulting in the disruption of traditional social relations. This led to a political, philosophical and moral transformation, which Shakespeare highlights in many of his works. In Macbeth, this shift can be seen through Shakespeare’s focus on the idea of ‘conscience’, and its relation to morality as a human conundrum, rather than a religious one.
The Lazarus theatre company has tried to adapt Shakespeare’s nevertheless timeless tale of unscrupulous ambition, and egotistical demise, for a more contemporary audience. The performance is visually strong, and the young cast move beautifully in sync to deliver a well-choreographed Brecht-inspired performance. The cast sometimes break the ‘fourth wall’ with characters directly addressing audience members. This brought depth to the experience, as did the clear attention given to the senses. The injection of smoke left a musty air of mystery which provided a cold, dark, eerie backdrop where murder and deceit held precedence, as well as a lingering smell.
This echoed the Elizabethan experience, as professor of English Jonathon Gil Harris explains in the programme, in which ‘foul smelling ingredients - sulphurous, brimstone, coal and saltpetre - that reeked all the more when detonated’ would fill the air of the Globe all those years ago. Other elements aimed to liven the senses, including attempts to create the atmosphere of thunder and lightning through the crashing of instruments and the explosion of on stage props, mirroring the desperate intensity of the characters’ drives.
Jamie O’Neill as Macbeth gave the most captivating performance of the evening. He begins his murderous tirade encouraged by a hunger for power, the guilt of which soon manifests in a deep rooted paranoia. This takes over his ability to behave with the calculated control we are shown at the beginning of the play. Lady Macbeth, played by Alice Emery, who mirrors this inability to avoid hallucinations born out of her guilt, was enjoyable to watch, if perhaps a slight caricature of a sexy female villain.
The attempt to condense a Shakespearian tragedy into a two hour production, resulted in some of the poetry getting lost, and Shakespeare's lyrical genius was not done thorough justice. It was executed coherently enough however to remind its audience that Shakespeare is to the English language what butter is to bread, and when I returned home, I was indeed inspired to spiral into the world of words (and google). Macbeth is littered with beautiful imagery and grand soliloquies.
The adaptation had particular difficulties depicting the witches or ‘weird sisters’ and the role of superstition in the storyline. Originally meaning ‘having the power to control destiny’, ‘weird’ for Shakespeare meant ‘unearthly’, but in this performance the ‘weird sisters’ almost appeared no different to any other characters in the play making it difficult to separate them from the generals and kings. Their intensity, influence and disturbing aura were not apparent.
Furthermore, some of the attempts to give a contemporary feel to Macbeth, perhaps aimed at allowing more accessibility to a youthful audience, such as dressing the almost entirely male cast in suit trousers and white shirts - that often found their way onto the stage floor - felt slightly superfluous. Shakespeare’s work has a transcendent quality despite being rooted in its moment, and can appeal across generations and cultures.
Macbeth is showing at Greenwich Theatre until 7th March, 2020.
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