Directed and Abridged by Ed Hughes, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Ambassadors Theatre, London, 18 November 2014.
Reviewed by Steve Orman
I’m somewhat ashamed to say that this was the first time that I had seen a production by the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. What I can say with certainty, is that it won’t be my last. Macbeth was a triumphant and vibrant success fuelled by the energy of the young and highly talented cast. I think, what I aiming to do with this review, is to evaluate how actors connect with audiences, and relevant here is the link between youth actors and a young audience (I guess I can get away with still calling myself ‘young’ despite the fact that what I’m actually drawing attention to is the fact that 80% of the audience were schoolchildren aged between 11-13). In particular, special mention must go to Jeremy Neumark Jones, who was quite simply one of the best Macbeths that I have ever seen. Never has the phrase ‘one to look out for’ been more fittingly applied to an actor as it can be to Jeremy Neumark Jones, who possesses what I refer to as the ‘Rory Kinnear Technique’ when it comes to delivering Shakespeare. What I mean by the ‘Rory Kinnear Effect’ is the ability for actors to deliver Shakespeare’s words with such emotion and coherency that the human connection with the audience becomes effortless. I certainly hang-off every word that Kinnear speaks and I found myself doing the same thing with Neumark Jones; the words seemed all very natural, very real. Never have I connected on a human level with a Macbeth before seeing Neumark Jones’ passionate and ultimately three-dimensional portrayal of Shakespeare’s tyrant; and the range of emotions that Neumark Jones elicited from the audience was incredible in heightening the tragedy of Macbeth, compared to say, Macduff or Banquo’s tragedy.
Director Ed Hughes seemed to be swaying towards heightening the tragedy of Macbeth and his wife by suggesting that they were puppets at the mercy of the Weird Sisters, as he mentioned in his programme notes: “By letting the witches’ thoughts into their hearts and minds, bit by bit Macbeth and Lady Macbeth destroy all that they know to be true about themselves and in doing so allow chaos to spill out into the world”. This seems to stem from Ed Hughes’s larger questions of: “Whenever we have a thought, where does this come from?” and “Why did we end up in a war a hundred years ago, that cost so many people their lives?”. In the centenary year marking the outbreak of the First World War, the National Youth Theatre’s production was a timely reminder of our own historical past, and the setting of the play in the period leading up to the First World War was a poignant reminder of the terrible loss of life, brutal despotic murders, and overwhelming sense of tragedy that found resonance with the world of Shakespeare’s play.
Sliced down to 1 hour and 45 minutes, it was initially interesting, for me at least, that the National Youth Theatre put on a production of Macbeth as part of their season, as, along with Romeo and Juliet, it’s probably the play that many young British children are introduced to at school. Whereas Romeo and Juliet, say, naturally invites youth actors to play the title roles, Macbeth works surprisingly well with a young cast – something that I had never really considered before. I mention this, because, the audience consisted predominantly of schoolchildren – primarily teenage schoolgirls. It might appear a gross generalisation, but it was apparent that a large proportion of this young audience connected with the actors in ways that I had not previously experienced. I did have my doubts, initially, however, as before the production started, the noise level emitted by the young audience exceeded that of several rock concerts that I’ve been to, but they quickly settled down once the lights dimmed in the theatre. But, once the play started, the audience responded warmly to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. A simultaneous “awwwwww” of affection was emitted by a number of young audience members as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embraced after the former returned home after becoming Thane of Cawdor. And this vocalisation of emotion from the audience wasn’t patronising or simulated, it was one of several genuine moments where the intimacy between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth resonated with the young audience, who gave an appropriate emotional response. OK, there may have been some girlish giggling when husband and wife kissed each other, or wolf-whistling when the scantily-clad witches came on stage after the interval (and this in itself being an interesting response from school girls), but they were responding to the text’s emotionally charged moments with a collective emotional response of their own. So it seems to me at least that youth theatre for schoolchildren stimulates and encourages a more vocal and emotional response compared to some of the other theatres that I frequent where audiences can be pretty silent besides polite applause at the conclusion of the play.
The witches had a significant influence over the Macbeths because of a clever directorial decision to let the three witches play various servants within the Macbeth household. The witches (as servants) frequently leered menacingly towards Lady Macbeth and her husband when the couple’s backs were turned. This essentially emphasised those supernatural elements of the play and that Macbeth is fate’s plaything. The witches employed a lot of dance movements to move about the stage in a ritualistic fashion. After the interval, a large red cloth dominated the stage like a tepee, where the trio of witches went behind it. With clever lighting they could manipulate shadows to look huge (an armed head) and rip babies from another shadows’ womb (a bloody child). This baby then came near the red screen to frighten Macbeth. The third silhouette, a figure with a tree in its hand also grew to a ginormous size as the black shape moved towards Macbeth’s kneeling body.
The production chose to focus on the fragile nature of human bonds, and this was emphasised in several scenes. Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain, Banquo, and Macduff arrived at the Macbeths’ castle and the drink flowed as Duncan downed pints of beer to the merriment of the whole company. The characters sat frozen in time, as Macbeth soliloquised, very much an outsider to this group, attempting to convince himself to flee from the path of murder of his sovereign. With this fragile bond of friendship and service shattered after Macbeth’s slaughter of the King, the production flagged up the elements of madness that dominate Macbeth’s personality. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth was a mess. Every sound made him start and drop to the ground in anguish. Here was a very human Macbeth, breaking into floods of tears as he recalled the terrifying moment of bellicosity and butchery immediately after the murder. Macbeth was not the only savage murderer, however, but unlike the cold hearted assassins employed to dispatch Banquo and Macduff’s family, Macbeth had a conscious. The murderers of Banquo dispatched him savagely by cutting him down with knives, their smiling, menacing laughter seemingly resonant of Macbeth’s psychosomatic torture, as did the moment when Lady Macduff’s son was massacred right in front of her eyes; his murderer laughing as the child’s throat was cut. The scene where Banquo’s ghost enters was again a fantastic example of Macbeth’s fragile psychological state and skilfully conveyed to the audience the terror that Macbeth was experiencing as Banquo marched in a militaristic style astride the table towards the cowering Macbeth.
Macbeth was again rendered human in the moment when Seyton brought him news of his wife’s death. Macbeth’s head sunk downwards as he sobbed openly before clutching his face and wiping the tears from his eyes, only then starting to speak, “She should have died hereafter”. It was an important moment that again blurred audiences’ allegiances. We should be full of malice against Macbeth’s tyrannical actions at this moment in the play, but it was hard not to feel sympathy for the tortured protagonist. These ambiguities continued into the moments when Birnam wood moved towards Macbeth, as soldiers using tree branches as camouflage tied to their heads and shoulders, crept from amongst the stalls and moved up onto the stage. Who should the audience be rooting (no pun intended) for in this moment? Macbeth managed to kill them all in combat, stabbing the advancing soldiers. Even young Siward, who aimed his rifle at Macbeth before trying to snap the trigger could only fire blanks before Macbeth stabbed him in the chest. Macbeth’s cocky confidence was evident in the fact that he freely twirled his sword around before slaughtering all enemies, however, again, the human side of Macbeth was visibly apparent in the moment when Macbeth realised that Macduff was ripped form his mother’s womb. Dropping his sword in shock and stuttering in disbelief, Macbeth had already realised that he wouldn’t beat Macduff before the fight had even begun. The fight was acrobatic and ended with Macbeth on his knees facing the audience, as Macduff plunged his sword downwards through Macbeth’s left shoulder. Macbeth’s body fell forward, crashing to the ground where it remained until the blackout.
Overall, the production was intriguing on many different levels, both with the constantly shifting nature how the audience were encouraged to respond to Macbeth, and also how the production seemed designed to encourage youthful audiences to respond very actively to the performance. As a way of concluding, one final example where the audience connected instantly, and very vocally through copious, loud laughter, was with the Porter (Grace Chilton). The production began with the Porter playing an accordion accompanied by grotesque facial gestures. The Porter, indeed, wore white face paint like a clown, black paint around her eyes and red lipstick, as well as a bowler hat, all iconographic signs that convey humour. It was a good mix of the creepy and the hilarious, with the Porter often extending the pronunciation of the word ‘knocks’ in a high intonation for prolonged periods of time. Ultimately then, it was a production put on by young people who ‘get’ Shakespeare that successfully engaged a group of teenagers with Shakespeare.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.