REVIEW: Macbeth, Lazarus Theatre Company (Greenwich Theatre)

This week Mummy was invited along to Greenwich Theatre to see a preview performance of their contemporary re-imagining of Macbeth. In recent years, Mummy’s forays into Shakespeare have been limited to the West End production of Shakespeare in Love, spoof Broadway musical Something Rotten, and an abridged version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by 7-10 year olds. She has vague recollections of having studied extracts from Macbeth in Year 8 around 20 years ago but this was her first live encounter with the Bard’s bloody tragedy.

Macbeth is the first production in Lazarus Theatre Company’s third season as associate artists at Greenwich Theatre. The company prides itself on bringing new life and a fresh perspective to classic work and their Macbeth is no exception. This interpretation focuses less on the supernatural and more on the themes of political power and ambition which remain just as relevant today as they ever were. As Artistic Director Ricky Dukes highlights in his programme notes, the success of Shakespeare’s writing is the ability to write characters with universal human traits, touching a nerve with the audience. Chillingly, Dukes cautions that “we all could be Macbeth”. (For those wholly unfamiliar with the story, this is very much not a good thing, given that Macbeth is seduced by a prophecy that he will become King, murders everyone in the way of his pursuit of power and ultimately meets a gory end himself.)

The production effectively mixes the old and the new, adding to this sense that Macbeth is a cautionary tale for every era. Though the text is traditional, the production incorporates elements from different ages, making it hard to pinpoint Macbeth in any particular place or time. From sharp-suited soldiers to the trio of microphone-wielding Weird Sisters in butchers’ aprons and gas masks, Sarcha Corcoran’s costume design is bold and gives the piece a very dystopian feel, which is echoed by Dukes’ set design. The expansive stage looks quite sparse at the start, filled with little more than some contemporary banquet chairs and an accompanying table. It’s deceptively simple and allows the space to be used very flexibly as the story moves rapidly between different locations. As the action intensifies, the stage is soon filled with fog that seems to comes in from multiple directions, including upwards through grating in the stage floor (which also allows for some very clever lighting by Alex Musgrave).

Cameron Nelson, David Clayton and Hamish Somers in Macbeth, Greenwich Theatre, Lazarus Theatre Company. Director – Ricky Dukes. Images by Adam Trigg

The chaos of Macbeth’s tyrannical reign sees showers of paper which begin to cover the stage, hurled by the ensemble before they charge through the auditorium. Our seats at the corner of the stage put us thrillingly close to this action, allowing us to both hear and feel the pandemonium as well as simply seeing it. As dramaturg Sophie Duntley notes in the programme, this sensory experience elevates the text and enhances the viewing experience. All the different elements of design from lighting, sound, costume and movement direction meld together cohesively to intensify the audience’s perceptions of the play. The effect is very engaging and it was really interesting to watch the excited reactions of the many student groups around us as they saw the familiar Shakespeare text come to life.

The Company, Macbeth, Greenwich Theatre, Lazarus Theatre Company. Director – Ricky Dukes. Images by Adam Trigg

It’s a strong ensemble piece, with the cast of ten on stage (and sometimes in the midst of the audience) for most of the action, with all bar Jamie O’Neill playing multiple roles. O’Neill is a compelling protagonist, who clearly transitions over the course of the play from a quite mild-mannered, reluctant killer into a paranoid tyrant, intent on holding onto power at any cost. Alice Emery is convincing as the seemingly cold and calculating Lady Macbeth, who handles murder weapons with the same ease as she holds court at the banquet table. Though we see her descend into madness, haunted by her past deeds, it is hard to feel anything for her or the now brutal husband she leaves behind. In fact (with perhaps the exception of Lady Macduff) it is difficult to feel much for any of the individual characters, as the fast pace of the action doesn’t really allow this. Instead, the production engenders more general feelings of fear for humanity that will surely resonate in the current political climate.

For a play filled with death, it does not dwell on the death scenes themselves, focusing instead on the everything goes on around them. We know of the motivations behind the killings and we see the aftermath (including plenty of blood!) Even Macbeth’s own demise is a fast affair, then it’s straight onto the coronation of the new King, the tyrant soon forgotten. By the time Malcolm is crowned, the ceremony is very familiar to the audience, who have seen this happen twice before. This is one of the most effective parts of the production, which emphasises the inevitability of Macbeth’s downfall and the precarious nature of his position. Each time the ensemble troop in to welcome the new King, we are reminded that power, however fiercely guarded, cannot be retained indefinitely. Yet, paradoxically, this recurring scene is a frightening reminder that, despite the constancy of change, things are never really all that different. And as a familiar smirk crosses the face of the newly crowned Malcolm, it is hard not to wonder if history is doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum.

The Company, Macbeth, Greenwich Theatre, Lazarus Theatre Company. Director – Ricky Dukes. Images by Adam Trigg

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles & Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Macbeth is playing at Greenwich Theatre from 26 February to 7 March 2020.

Age Recommendation: 12 and above. Contains haze, gun shots, blood and scenes of violence.