By William Shakespeare
Tara Arts Production
Poole Lighthouse, Tuesday 17th March 2015
Directed by Jatinder Verma
Composer Hassan Mohyeddin
Robert Mountford as Macbeth
Shaheen Khan as Lady Macbeth
Mitesh Soni as Banquo / Sergeant / Seyton)
Ralph Birtwell as Duncan, First witch, Murderer, Doctor
Deven Modha as Malcolm, 2nd witch, Fleance, Macduff’s son
Shalini Peiris as Lady Macduff / Porter and minor parts
Umar Pasha as Macduff, Murderer
John Afzal as Ross, Third witch, Murderer
Rax Timyr – percussion
L to R: Shalini Peiris (Gentlewoman), Robert Mountford (Macbeth), Shaheen Khan (Lady Macbeth)
From the adverts:
Spun together with a blend of Indian music and movement, this brand new production from one of the UK’s leading cross-cultural theatre companies sees Shakespeare’s tragedy re-imagined in a contemporary context as a brew of treachery and ambition sets an Asian family on a road to destruction. The production sees the engineers of Macbeth’s downfall depicted as three outrageous drag queens (Hijras) who cook up an explosive brew of treachery, ambition and passion, A strand of Indian society little-known in the west.
This is the season for two day presentations in the provinces with block sales to schools as a major element. I must have seen several Macbeths and Hamlets on tour, and I’ve seen several small cast Macbeths before. Since the blog started though, it has been major productions of Macbeth (opening the RSC’s rebuilt theatre) and James McAvoy at Trafalgar Studios. The blog started just after Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth at Chichester, and the other “mega-Macbeth” was Sean Bean in the early 2000s. So the small cast / big concept production is a change.
First off, they didn’t get the schools in on the Tuesday. What would have been a respectable audience in their home theatre (seating 100) was pretty thin in the large Lighthouse.
Secondly, where was the Indian music and movement? We got a percussionist with voice effects, none of which sounded especially Indian. We got lovely Indian movements from the Porter (Shalina Peiris) and a nice dance and song from the three witches in the second part. There was some formal foot movements on group entry. There was some excellent choreographed muscular but contactless kung-fu for the fights and murders, but I wouldn’t describe it as Indian. As there was no contact, I suppose it could be called “dance.”
The concept “a contemporary Asian family” didn’t run at all. OK, the actors were Indian, but only the porter and one murderer had Indian accents. We had no feeling that this lot were “a family” either. The costumes were sort of Indian over modern dress, bizarre when tartan sashes were added for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The banquet was seated on the ground with a fake rice dish. Everyone was bare foot. Otherwise? The “contemporary Asian family” doesn’t sit on the tale of medieval warfare, murder and guilt, and it just doesn’t resonate at all with the lines. I’ve seen a Stalinist Macbeth, a Fascist Macbeth, a Chicago gangster Macbeth, a Macbeth set in 2063 Scotland, and I’ve seen battlemented and armour clanking Macbeths. The BBC Shakespeare Reimagined series set it as a celebrity chef in a kitchen, a modernization starring James McAvoy that really resonated. Yes, Indian family sounds good … but it didn’t follow through. Indian costumes? Great. Set it in the Moghul Empire or the Raj or the Indian Mutiny. Better, the North-West Frontier, then or now. But contemporary? It would need a thought out connection. There isn’t one, apart from setting the witches as Hijaras or drag queens.
This is the issue with high-concept Macbeths. I could say “It’s about property developers and estate agents in Poole” set it in a wine bar and have rows of Bentley convertibles flanking the stage. Seems apposite on the surface (I live in Poole), but it’s not, is it? Macbeth needs competing and aggressive groups, but it also needs the central crimes of regicide, the murder of a just ruler who has been good to you and (very importantly) is your house guest so under your protection. A ruler who is an anointed king is chosen by God (in the mind set of when it was written, not when it was set). You need to sense Duncan as a person too. When the aggressive groups are TOO aggressive (as in the 2013 Trafalgar Studios production or Capone’s Chicago), you think they wouldn’t hold much value at all to snuffing out the boss. It needs the vaunting ambition, and a wife pushing him into it (dropped in the RSC 2011 version, which focused brilliantly on the collateral damage to women and children in conflict). But you can’t just “costume” Macbeth, add a couple of cultural references and have it work with the text. You can re-imagine it, write a modern day version and abandon the text, but here the text just contrasts jarringly with the concept.
The Three Witches
In the interval, my companion and I said ‘Didn’t Robert Mountford remind you of …’ and we both said ‘Brian Blessed.’ The loud, clear articulation, the roaring voice, the rolling eyes. He certainly reads the lines forcefully and precisely, but the style is declamatory actor-manager – a style used by the RSC in 2011, but with far greater subtlety. Karen’s old drama teacher would have thought it wonderful because it’s as if the Method and naturalism never happened. The BIG acting style permeated the entire production. Clarity and audibility and projection was admirable from all, but it felt recited, declaimed.
The only cast member to break it was Shalina Peiris as the female Indian porter, using an Indian accent but making lines sound natural rather than recited. Her set changing and wiggling on and off with Indian dance arm movements was the highlight of the first half, and her hand gestures as she was interrogated after the murder were very funny indeed. As Lady MacDuff, she dropped the accent too. Sometimes “BIG” is fine … MacDuff in Part Two was particularly good at it, though Malcolm wasn’t.
Macbeth (Malcolm’s army behind him)
The cast generally looked young. The cuts were surprising … or rather what wasn’t cut was surprising. It was good to see a sexy relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth as the agent of the action after recent ones have played this down, The witches as the best idea, could perhaps have been expanded, though they did seem to get through more of the lines than normal. We were impressed by the banquet napkins being held up to reveal Banquo’s bloody face. Though he also appeared in a hole high in the set, then walked on as a red-robed apparition. Maybe you didn’t need three appearances. The live drums with vocalizations were effective, especially in the kung fu sequences where the drums were the punches and kicks. But only drums gets mildly irritating in the end. The costumes and sets were impressive.
We have had a strong diet of RSC, National, Wanamaker recently, and on Macbeth, it’s hardly fair perhaps to compare this with Messrs Bean, Stewart, Slinger and McAvoy, though RADA and RSC appear in the actor bios here too. Also this was less than a quarter of the ticket price of the Wanamaker Playhouse two days ago (and … sorry can’t resist it … in comfortable seats too) and 3 miles from home and £1.50 to park the car. But in quality terms, the Wanamaker production of The Broken Heart was more than four times more engaging and well-put together and memorable. And Macbeth is obviously an intrinsically better play too.
OTHER MACBETHS REVIEWED HERE
Trafalgar Studios, 2013, Directed by Jamie Lloyd. James McAvoy as Macbeth. Set in a dystopian future Scotland, after oil has run out.
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2011, Directed by Michael Boyd, Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth
Young Vic Company, 2015, Directed by Carrie Cracknell & Lucy Guerrin. modern dress and setting with dance, in a 2015 Middle East war
Macbeth – Globe 2016, Ray Fearon as Macbeth
A FEW OTHER Re-IMAGININGS OF SHAKESPEARE REVIEWED HERE (for those coming from FUTURE LEARN)
- Julius Caesar – RSC 2012, set in a modern African football stadium
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011, set in a Hollywood film studio
- Antony & Cleopatra – RSC 2013, set in Napoleonic Haiti in the 1800
- Antony and Cleopatra 2012, Chichester Festival Theatre, set in Colonial Egypt in the 19th century
- Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic 2013, set in England in World War II, with the US Air Force
- The Taming of The Shrew – RSC 2012, set in post-1945 “Cinema Paradiso” Italy