Macbeth, OPRA Cymru, dir. by Patrick Young, 28 September 2013 at Y Llwyfan, Carmarthen.
Review by Alun Thomas
Judging by the small scattering of people at ‘Y Llwyfan’ tonight there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming demand for Welsh-language Shakespeare in opera form. This is a shame, because OPRA Cymru’s adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth is an astonishingly evocative descent into madness which drags the audience headlong into the desolate world of Shakespeare’s play.
Walking into the theatre gives no hint of how unsettling tonight’s experience will be. The small, square stage is utterly bare and lit by harsh white light, producing a minimalist effect. Two rows of white seats enclose it on every side, a vivid contrast to the black walls of the theatre itself.
Without warning, the lights are extinguished. Conversation stops abruptly and a long silence follows. The black-painted walls which seemed so incongruous before draw in, and we realise just how small the space is. In the absence of light and movement, the audience becomes aware of the blackness pressing in on every side. This smothering darkness which surrounds the stage is the focal point of the drama: it encompasses audience and characters alike, suffocating and ever-present, creating a palpable atmosphere of dread. The sense of the unseen menace of the supernatural, of a world of unimaginable terror beyond our comprehension, lurking invisible and just out of reach, is inescapable. When the stage is illuminated it feels as if the entire world is a blasted heath, suspended in a pitiless void.
Still the pause drags on in silence. The lone pianist gazes at his sheet music with a troubled air, but makes no move to touch the keys. The doors behind us burst open in an explosion of light and sound and the three witches stumble in, dressed in short checked skirts, their hair askew, and in an obvious state of inebriation. A particular highlight of a superlative production, the witches bring to mind mischievous schoolgirls, coquettish, simultaneously innocent and knowing. They seem to take an ingenuous delight in evil for its own sake, not because they want to, but because it’s in their nature. Giggling, they flounder towards the stage, bumping into the audience and stumbling as they climb onto the platform. They cackle dementedly as a sickly grey light slowly saturates the room. They face each other in silence, grin, and burst into song.
The Welsh language is uniquely suited to Macbeth, its earthy focus on the land and soil, on realities which can be seen, not felt, act as a counterpoint to the intangible sense of evil which pervades the play. When Macbeth stares in disgust at the imaginary blood on his hands after murdering Duncan, he uses the word ‘fudr’, meaning ‘dirty’, but this translation does not capture the full sense of the word in Welsh, which is a language that creates meaning as much from association as what is actually said. This seemingly simple word is filled with connotations of festering corruption, of filth that cannot be cleansed, on a spiritual as well as a physical level. Throughout the play, alternative ways of conceptualising and understanding the events onstage coil unseen beneath the surface of the words.
This is perhaps most obvious in the repeated use of the word ‘hiraeth’, notionally meaning nostalgia, but actually stretching far beyond this. In Welsh it suggests a physical, visceral longing for a familiar place, as well the feelings one associates with that place. Welsh being an endlessly adaptable language, the meaning alters depending on the speaker: Macduff uses it in the conventional sense to express his love for the homeland he has fled to escape murder, while Lady Macbeth’s use suggests an aching, cruelly frustrated desire to return to a vanished shore of sanity, where she will be safe and all will be well. The language of the play, like the prophecies of the witches, is constantly shifting, ungraspable.
Macbeth works magnificently as an opera, the music bringing the characters’ disorientation, the disordering of their senses, to malignant life. The effect is particularly striking when Banquo confronts Macbeth about his ambitions; the scene is played in a bizarrely jolly way, with Banquo singing ‘his head is swelling, he’s been deceived’ to an upbeat, happy tune. The sheer incongruity of the medium and the message builds the tension, as dire warnings are sung cheerfully to the heedless Macbeth.
The occasional flashes of unexpectedly impish humour in the play unsettle almost as much as the creeping fear. When the witches, dressed as parodies of doctors, in white coats and oversized glasses, tell Macbeth that Banquo’s descendants will inherit the crown, the entire cast stalk towards the anguished king wearing cut-out paper masks of Banquo’s face. The effect is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious, especially when they turn their gaze upon the audience. Unable to decide which reaction is appropriate, most of the crowd plump for stunned silence.
The heightened emotion inherent in opera fits perfectly with the extremes of terror and suffering in the play, but the production truly shines in its quiet moments when the large-scale horror gives way to a hushed, introspective dread. The intimacy of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder is unforgettable; the suddenly vulnerable, childlike Macbeth comes to her for comfort and she responds by placing her hand over his heart and burying her head in his back.
Trapped in a symbiotic relationship slowly spiralling out of control, Phil Gault’s blustering, hollow Macbeth and Eldrydd Cynan Jones’s steely Lady Macbeth dominate the stage whenever they appear. In particular, Macbeth’s twisted, writhing face when he resumes his seat at the feast after seeing Banquo’s ghost and assures his guests that all is well is utterly chilling. Commanding even in her madness, Lady Macbeth’s eventual quiet recognition of the terrible forces she has unleashed is all the more effective because of its understatement. Silently watching Macbeth frantically chasing invisible spirits around the stage, she sits, curiously calm, and stares outwards into the darkness.
The play’s most mesmerising moment occurs immediately after the interval, as Macbeth, barefoot, crawls onto the stage to retrieve a key, placed in the middle of the otherwise empty space. The single concession to his new royal status, a small medal pinned to his breast, hangs askew. His agonising progress seems to take forever. Finally he reaches it, and lies on his back holding it above his head, fixing it with a vacant gaze. The witches enter and softly, tenderly, take it from him.
The unearthly power of the occult is glimpsed but never seen in this production, although the play cultivates its atmosphere of seeping evil so assiduously that when Phil Gault reaches for the ghostly dagger, clawing at the air, the effect is so convincing that the audience looks not at him, but at the space where the dagger should be. When Macduff approaches him with a real dagger at the play’s conclusion, Macbeth grins, as if relieved to finally see a tangible manifestation of the supernatural horror which has driven him insane. Before his fingers can touch it, Macduff stabs him to death.
As Macbeth lies dying, a soft golden light floods the stage, growing in intensity until it illuminates the room. The black walls seem to recede. And then the darkness falls again.