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Macbeth – Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Scott Ellis

Reviewer: Georgina Newman

[rating:3]

Scott Ellis’ Macbeth for the Lion and Unicorn Theatre is a pared-down affair. It’s swiftly done, rather like a slide show with a stage for a projector screen, the scenes mere moments which pass in quickfire succession – rather akin to the blink-and-then-you’ve-missed-it method used in many of today’s TV detective dramas. But this is a sound approach by Ellis. Given the nature of the stage, with the audience sitting either side, there’s nearly always a New London Company cast member with their back to someone in the audience. Quick scene changes prevent this from occurring for a prolonged length of time.

The actors, most of whom play multiple rôles, are mainly decked in modern day military uniform, with daggers in belts and black army boots – save Lady Macbeth with her army of dresses. They move across the bare stage, expressively silhouetted by the film noir lighting. This is especially effective whenever Macbeth and Lady Macbeth meet alone on stage, and their darting eyes look splendidly sinister in the white light-dark shadow interchanges.

Regardless of being in the realms of Shakespearean tragedy, the three witches – two men in dresses, one woman in pink lycra leggings – are less a source of supernatural malevolence than of hippie fun and light relief. They still put forward the fateful prophecy, but at the same time manage to revive the 80s nightclub scene from some drug-induced delirium.

The highlight is the culminating scene, with just Macbeth, his new nemesis Macduff, a table, two chairs, a pistol, and a game of Russian roulette. With each spin of the cylinder feeling more and more like we’ve wondered into some Robert De Niro film, this method of showdown provides a nice alternative touch.

However brief, Albert Clack delivers a memorable Duncan. Suit-clad, his king is all warmth and fatherly benevolence. Ben Kavanagh is fairly solid as Macbeth, though he lacks that all-important greed for kingship. His is a boyish Macbeth, impulsive and impetuous, more angry than anything else. His tactic of constantly trying to steal eye contact with members of the audience while soliloquising is an eerie one that works well. It allows the audience to feel involved in his descent even if it puts you slightly on edge. The easy advantage of a small venue is the claustrophobic nature of the stage and its proximity to the audience which inevitably allows for a certain degree of feeling ill-at-ease. The main complaint with Natasha McClure’s Lady Macbeth is that she doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable enough. Her sleepwalking experience is a weepy one, but not much else. It passes quickly and is then all but forgotten. There’s no stillness to her plight, no lingering sense of grief, only affectation.

Kieran Sims gives a stand-out performance as Macduff. His drive to avenge Macbeth for the murder of his family is intensely palpable. In a play in which characterisation is poor for all but Macbeth, Sims manages to exhibit a lust for revenge which resonates poignancy, revealing a greater side to his character than we see of Macbeth.

There’s certainly more here to like than dislike. Ellis works well with the space afforded to him, and there are some strong performances from supporting cast members, but there’s little sense of the ambition which guides Macbeth or the tyrannous nature of his rule. The leap from first murder to madness is too great. More needs to be made of Lady Macbeth’s taunting emasculation of Macbeth and the curse of his ambition, otherwise it all seems too capricious. In this, it’s less tragic than it could be.

Runs until Saturday 7th July

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2 comments

  1. Avatar
    Sandra Collins

    So impressed, was I, by tonights performance of MACBETH at the Lion & Unicorn (NLC), that when i retuned home i immediately looked online for any reviews and background information on the company. To my utter surprise i found this very poorly judged review which seems to have completely missed some of the great performances and direction of the piece. Ofcourse people are going to have their backs to the audience in a traverse space… it seems rather silly to bring this up at all.

    This is not a three star show; the entire cast give an incredibly raw and thrilling performance. My friend and I were glued to the entire evening and so were those around us. Well Done NLC!!

  2. Avatar

    I have read the two reviews above and can understand where both are coming from. I am a Macbeth afficianado, and have seen productions at the Barbican, Globe and National Theatres. I will not be patronising to the NLC by attempting to claim that their performances ranked alongside those of the A list performers I have seen but this was an excellent evening’s entertainment. Given the constraints within which they perform this was a really thoughtful Macbeth. It is certainly given at a cracking pace but why not. This is an action play and yes there are some important philosophical points to be made but let’s not start to be too pseudish about motives etc and let’s get on and enjoy the action.

    Ben Kavanagh, as Macbeth, talks to his audience. There’s no actorly hyperbole here, and I was particularly struck at his reaction to the death of Lady Macbeth. It is sometimes missed in other productions that these two are lovers as well as marriage partners (they share a lost child)and the news of Lady Macbeth’s death is treated as a genuine tragedy in this production rather than something ancilliary to the ending. I do not however wish to single out actors as there was not a weak link in the company.

    Do I have any adverse points. Well,yes. I would have preferred the witches to have been more seriously portrayed – their prophecies make an important point about fate which the Macbeths are unable to resist. And the death of Lady Macduff and her child is supposed to be a truly harrowing experience; in my view deliberately so in order to remove our lingering sympathy for Macbeth. Here it was done off stage although full marks to Kieran Sims as Macduff in restoring the horror of the event in his reaction to its news. (Sorry I did say I wouldn’t single out actors but hey ho who says I have to be consistent?).

    In short I give my own thanks to NLC for giving me a evening I will remember with delight. I really do urge anyone who is used, as I am, to attending West End productions to get along to the smaller theatres and companies – it is so rewarding.

    The NLC’s Autumn season will apparently include a version of Great Expectations. I look forward to this and to being able to say ‘What Larks, Pip’.