REVIEW (From a distance): Macbeth (Big Telly Theatre Company)

Big Telly Theatre Company is back with perhaps its most ambitious Zoom production to date. This month, audiences are invited to draw their curtains tight, turn off the lights and enter the realm of the witching hour for an up close and personal theatrical reboot of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. After putting the munchkins to bed on Saturday night, Mummy and Mrs Mummy set up the computer in a dark corner of the kitchen, poured themselves some beverages, and logged into Zoom for The Scottish Play, Big Telly style.

This was our fourth Big Telly online production and the format felt very familiar. After logging in, we were presented with some on screen instructions that included a requirement to write our location on a piece of paper and a suggestion that we keep some salt handy. A few minutes later, three figures appeared on screen in another familiar scene. Not hags huddled around a cauldron, but a pair of politicians and a scientific adviser standing at socially distanced podiums, warning us of the rising curve of witchcraft. Scribbled signs at the ready, we were soon chucking salt over our shoulders before being tested for exposure to witches via a socially distanced system that thankfully didn’t require us to place cotton buds into any orifices. Luckily we tested negative (although Mummy is slightly suspicious of the Big Telly testing systems given that she was wearing a Wicked jumper and had spent an afternoon at a concert starring two former witches from said show!)

Not everything was as it seemed, however, and soon after the trio stepped down from the podiums and scurried backstage, they revealed their true selves. Not leaders of the country at all but mischievous spirits who, from their playground in a deserted theatre, were preparing to stage manage the demise of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Dharmesh Patel in Macbeth

Tradition requires that a ‘ghost-light’ be left on while the theatre is dark, to ward off restless ghosts and protect its magic from harm. The lights are off, but the magic is not gone. A closed theatre is a perfect playground for mischievous spirits intent on wreaking havoc.  

These nods to the dystopian nightmare that we have all been living for the last seven months, and the focus on the importance of the non-performing roles in theatre in particular, are the most intriguing elements in this very different Macbeth. This dark and intense play is not the easiest to bring to life on screen, especially with a cast of just five actors who haven’t even met each other. But, using an array of physical props and Blair Witch-worthy camerawork (with the help of some Zoom wizardry from Big Telly’s own Weird Sisters, Technical Stage Manager, Sinead Owens and Production Manager, Giles Stoakley) they manage to conjure up real theatrical magic from their bedrooms, kitchens and even fire escapes.

Macbeth isn’t as interactive as previous Big Telly productions but this is understandable given the subject-matter. It’s rather more difficult to get the audience involved in bloody murder than its is to have them joining in with party games at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! Still, there are elements where the audience is brought into the action, and though it may not be truly immersive, this still brings with it the thrilling reminder that you are sharing a live experience with other real people. The use of technology is more advanced in this production, with audience members actually cut out and placed into scenes, rather than just flicking between individual screens. It’s visually impressive, particularly in scenes where two individual Zoom windows are placed side by side, against a virtual backdrop that makes it appear as if they are in the same place. And it’s made all the more impressive when you realise just how much of the work the actors are having to do themselves, in addition to delivering their performances.

Dennis Herdman as Macbeth

Dennis Herdman makes a menacing, almost maniacal Macbeth, his initial reticence giving way first to arrogance and then a desperate insistence that he is invincible despite the inevitability of his demise. Nicky Harley’s very human Lady Macbeth is layered and believable, talking herself into becoming evil enough to do what needs to be done, and holding it together long enough to help her husband ascend to power, before eventually unravelling under the weight of her conscience.

Nicky Harley as Lady Macbeth

Meanwhile, Aonghus Og McAnally, Dharmesh Patel and Lucia McAnespie play not just the witches but every other role in the play. This doubling up of roles gives real meaning to the early warning about the rapid infection rate of witchcraft in the community, although it could make it quite confusing if (like Mrs Mummy) you don’t already know the plot. (She would have been lost if it weren’t for the Zoom usernames and some sneaky exposition when the microphone was muted – although this probably says quite a lot about her inability to understand Shakespearean English!)

It also may not be a production for the theatre purists, who might find the use of technology and audience interaction distracting. There is definitely a disconnect between the heavy Shakespeare text and the lighter sections in which the audience get to participate in the royal banquet or sit in a box at the theatre. But although it may seem jarring, this juxtaposition of the jovial sections against the more macabre moments does highlight the absurdity of the Macbeths trying to maintain the pretence of normal life as everything around them unravels. The shift from the initial black and white filter to full colour (described perfectly by another audience member as the ‘Wizard of Oz moment’) also gives sense that the facade is starting to slip, as it becomes clear who is really controlling the narrative. Though the opening may seem gimmicky, perhaps the most terrifying part of this production is the part that rings true. While the leaders of our world focus on the pursuit of power, something scary is silently spreading through the community and it doesn’t feel like anyone is truly in control.

Spooky, surreal and yet all too real in places, this is truly a Macbeth for our times and another triumph for Big Telly. We really enjoyed being able to join a post-show Q&A with the cast and creative team, where we learned lots of interesting technical things that we didn’t fully understand but gave us an even greater appreciation of the Big Telly technical team (for whom we already had a lot of love)! It was also fantastic to hear the thoughts of other audience members, all of whom were full of enthusiasm for the innovative things that this Northern Irish company have been doing. And given the 9.30pm start time of the show, it was also really nice to be in the company of audiences from across the Atlantic. (From our perspective, 9.30pm is brilliant as it allows us both to watch, which is something we couldn’t do with a more traditional start time because it clashes with bedtime duties.) We were also pleased to hear director, Zoe Seaton confirm that she would love to keep working in this medium as long as there is audience demand for it, highlighting how she has received lots of feedback from audience about how it has made theatre more accessible to them. We love Zoom theatre and, even though we have started going back to in-person shows, we would still very happily watch an interactive online show on the nights when we are in the house. We look forward to whatever Big Telly has in store next.

Macbeth premiered at the Belfast International Arts Festival (BIAF). It will be transferring to Creation Theatre’s platform as a co-production until 31 October (with a special midnight show on 30 October).

We received complimentary tickets to the 9.30pm performance on 17 October in return for a review.