Macbeth – Home, Manchester – Saturday 6th February, 2016
I found this a riveting production. It flowed effortlessly, easily holding me throughout its two hours + (no interval – how fashionable!). And it stayed with me – I found myself going over and over this production in my mind for days afterwards. It was clear rendition of this horrible story, with, for the most part, clear verse speaking and strong characterization. This, particularly, I felt, in the two leads: the ambition that was to doom both of them was obviously there from the start, with John Heffernan’s thane horribly torn by indecision and Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth obviously used to having to force him on, to the extent that it had rendered her nervy to the point of a distraction fiercely held in check – her brittle delivery in the first half giving a clear indication of the breakdown to come.
It was, for want of a better term, a ‘contemporary’ production, with a multi-racial cast, modern costuming and production tropes obviously meant to create a connection between its audience’s world and the horror of warfare and treachery contained in the script: Duncan posed for photo opportunities with Macbeth and Banquo, body bags were dragged on and off stage, the news-bearing sergeant was female etc. Yet it was really set in a sort of horrific limbo: it was true to the Shakespearean script, and bayonet knives, rather than guns were the weapons, the crown a nightmare child’s toy; and the belief in fate and foretelling the future could obviously not be ducked. This timelessness, I feel, made the weird sisters truly weird and at time unsettling – young women, whose contemporary dance steps conveyed possession so well. And the scenography was, for me, was one of the production’s main strengths – it conjured up this hopeless nihilistic place beautifully, with set, light and sound complementing each other to create a totally appropriate nowhere, nowhen.
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
The set (Lizzie Clachan) gave us a concrete underground cavern – a fall-out shelter? a sewer? – with hidden doors in its seamless walls allowing for quick entrances and exits, automated sideways shifts upstage and a central lifting area allowing, for example, the easy creation of a table for the banquet, and just as easily vanishing. And it seemed to go on for ever, as though the stage had endless depth – a very clever use of an old scenic trick, exaggerated perspective.
We have become so used to perspective, so accepting of it, rendering as it does on paper the vision our eyes’ optics present to our brain, that, despite the efforts of post 1900 art, we forget it is really only a convention, according to Gombrich, brought to mathematical perfection only in the fifteenth century. John Willats quotes Cezanne: “Perspective is as accidental a thing as lighting … reality shows us these objects mutilated in this way. But in reality we can change position …” to see them properly, echoed by Bertrand Russell saying “The ‘real’ shape is not what we see: it is something inferred from what we see.” But, seated in an end-stage or proscenium theatre, we can’t really change position, and theatre designers were quick to see the potential of perspective. By 1500, by mimicking a perspective drawing in the relative sizes of their scenery according to the depth of its placing on the stage, they created the illusion of added depth – exaggerated perspective.
Illustration of early perspective scenery from Leacroft, R., & Leacroft, H. (1984). Theatre and Playhouse: An Illustrated Survey of Theatre Building from Ancient Greece to the Present Day. Methuen Publishing Ltd.
And this is what Clachan has done here – so the post-apocalyptic horror of the concrete design is given a new dimension of almost never-ending depth. Weirdly ‘artificial’ lighting effects were created by LD, Neil Austen, through gaps in the ceiling and through strong, almost ‘outside’ light streaming in through opened doors. But this wasn’t his only contribution to the visual threatening unease created by the setting. When faced with blank sidewalls most LDs would have perceived problems – what about the shadows on the walls? He embraced them, with low front-light up-lighting dance and drama, with the shadows thrown only adding to the unease.
Add to this the unsettling sound effects of designer David McSeveney and Clark’s music, reinforcing mood wonderfully at precise moments and, all in all, the scenographers did a wonderful job of creating this aptly horrid setting, beautifully providing the appropriate world for the play.
 Both quotations can be found in Collins, J., & Nisbet, A. (2010). Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography (1st ed.). Routledge. (Russell in Chapter 1 and Willats in Chapter 3)