Creation Theatre’s Macbeth is an open-air production in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, the first Oxford College to admit women to read for degrees.
Against a backdrop of midsummer borders, Jonathan Holloway’s production of Macbeth reconceives the action inside a military sanatorium, with Duncan as a faceless, wheelchair-bound burns victim, and the witches a side-effect of ECT and pharma. This high-concept approach generally succeeds, thanks to the cast’s versatility and an ambitious electric soundscape by sound designer Matt Eaton. The cast of six degenerate from soldiers to patients, while Madeleine Joseph plays the Porter as a disenchanted nurse, driven to exhaustion and drink by the trauma she’s witnessed.
Reading Holloway’s enjoyably trenchant programme essay, however, suggests that not all aspects of this concept made it across the (grassy) footlights. Apparently, the play starts with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. I will concede that stage right featured a Saltire-covered coffin, but as far as sightlines would permit (we were in the “Fairweather” seats: don’t book one if you’re short or short-sighted), I didn’t see anyone interact with said coffin at this point. It’s true that the play also began with the ritual waving and repositioning of a dozen or so black flags, whose swirling and furling sometimes suggested the wings of planes and sometimes the hulls of boats – but, again, this military formation, in tandem with shelling and engine noises in the soundscape, seemed like basic tone-setting, episodes of which punctuated the performance. War, and the pity of war, clearly: but inferring a dead son in Flanders was too much.
The three LMH buildings – Wordsworth, Talbot and Toynbee – date from the fin de siècle to World War 1, making them the perfect architectural backdrop for reimagining the Macbeths’ mansion as convalescent home. Lady Margaret Hall looks like a dystopian Downton Abbey, as characters appear at windows or rage on balconies. Since said buildings are presumably housing real-life conference guests or summer schools over the long vacation, there’s a lovely realism to the lights flickering behind closed curtains – just as the setting sun and odd murder of crows winging westward matches the play’s thematic slide from chivalric celebration to psychological night.
Yet, at times, this hyper-real geography seems curiously inconsistent. It’s believable that the success-soaked, hubristic Macbeths might plan Duncan’s murder mid-snog in their bedroom, and nicely effective to see Lady Macbeth alternately welcoming her husband and communing with the sky. Later, however, there’s no chance whatsoever that they’d wash their bloodied hands and discuss the aftermath of killing Duncan in extremely loud voices with the windows open, in a castle full of guests.
The decision to situate key scenes at such long range from the audience also serves Laura Murray’s Lady Macbeth very poorly: with the exception of the sleepwalking scene, all her key scenes happen a very long way and several floors up from the audience, forcing her to emote at very much more than arm’s length.
Another consequence of the huge set and soundscape is that all the actors are miked. This works reliably 95% of the time (again, praise to Matt Eaton) but makes finding which actor is speaking (and from where) extremely difficult, as a speaker system means their voices emanate from everywhere, and that the actors themselves often get lost in the landscape. With much cast doubling and the men all dressed in khaki (against green borders), there’s an occasional danger of losing track even of characters: a pair of spectacles reified the distinction between Simon Spencer-Hyde’s tense, pugnacious Macduff and his honourable Banquo, but I struggled to distinguish between Spencer-Hyde’s Banquo and Richard Kidd’s (also white, shaven-headed) Ross.
Scott Ainslie’s Macbeth is low-key without ever being low-stakes. Too often, even very great actors hear the witches’ first prophetic cackle and switch instantly and permanently from popular warrior to psychopath, meaning that by the time the audience reaches Act V, we’ve got so used to Macbeth’s mad-eyed horror that, the sleepwalking scene done, there’s nothing to look forward to except the designer’s take on walking trees. Ainslie, happily, avoids all this. Not only is the momentum kept up brilliantly via bunker mentality and some Downfall-esque shouting into field ‘phones, but we’re treated to a bravura tour de force from the very top of Talbot Hall, from which a hipflask-swigging Macbeth seems only too likely to pelt Christopher York’s hapless Doctor.
More importantly, Ainslie builds the monstrosity slowly, illuminating text. For the first time, Banquo’s “Thou hast it now […] and, I fear/Thou play’dst most foully for’t” sounds more like the perspicacity of an intimate friend than the deeply overdue realisation that the new King of Scotland is a murderous nutjob. Equally, Lady Macbeth’s “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” – the last line she ever says to Macbeth onstage – typically sounds beyond incongruous, given that by this point most ghost-seeing Macbeths would sooner order the Thane of Fife on toast and snack on a Satanic yoghurt than drink a peppermint tea and turn in. But what’s so chilling is that you sense that these Macbeths do still share a bed, sustaining a normal existence alongside the regicide and terror.
Above all, Scott Ainslie’s murderous Macbeth remains horribly plausible: an officer and a gentleman, whose residual likeability is the most dangerous thing about him. Violence has become normality. Macbeth is as desensitised to private murder as national war: one justifies another, until killing is the most natural act imaginable. Ainslie’s charisma has important consequences for Christopher York’s damaged First Murderer, a Smike-like young private, convinced by Macbeth’s paternal rationality that Banquo deserves to die. York goes on to slaughter the Macduffs before finally exsanguinating in his general’s toxic embrace.
Holloway has edited Macbeth with a mix of liberalism and butchery. In their first appearance, the witches (the supporting cast, black flags trailed across faces) aren’t on long enough to establish themselves, and for every useful streamlining – Seward and Seyton are heavily pared – there’s a disappointment. Eliding Ross with the messenger right before Lady Macduff’s murder means that Richard Kidd switches awkwardly from consoling his “pretty coz” to calling her “madam” and announcing that he can’t stay any longer immediately after having left. It’s a shame to mess about with Madeleine Joseph’s best scene: alongside Christopher York, hers is the standout performance of the night.
Holloway is entirely right to say that Macbeth shouldn’t be treated as a sacred text, immune from editing – not least, perhaps, because the Folio version that survives for us is apparently one that Thomas Middleton had a go at, revisiting the play after Shakespeare’s death and interpolating material from his own The Witch (1615). I quite like a bit of hubble and bubble, and it’d be a shame if a future generation of theatregoers grew up without wondering what a brinded cat was, or how its shriek sounded, but Macbeth without the witches isn’t (quite) Hamlet without the prince, so fair enough.
Unexpectedly, it was Holloway’s least controversial cut that proved my greatest regret. In the fourth act of Macbeth, there’s a scene in England, in which Macduff and Malcolm plan the invasion of Scotland, and discover (via Ross) that Macduff’s family have died at the tyrant’s hands. Before that – often to the twitching boredom of the audience, who are waiting for Macduff to discover the massacre – Malcolm has a long and weird attack of cold feet. He tells Macduff at great length how pathologically unfit for kingship he is, beset by vices from avarice to blasphemy, and then, once Macduff is thoroughly appalled, confesses that he’s actually a virtuous virgin with every intention of ruling well.
As scenes go, it’s psychologically unnerving, dramatically tricky, lengthy, and – at such a late dramatic stage – complicates rather than advances the plot. Since Malcolm is a relatively small role, in a traditional production it’s often weakly cast. But with Christopher York as Malcolm, I suddenly longed to know how the scene would play out. It was largely cut, depriving the audience of a key part of the night’s strongest performance. Alongside the subjugated, savage Murder, York’s Scottish prince was a chilly, convincing portrayal that moved from filial thin-lipping and a disdain for “grief unfelt” to a final moment of violence that indicates Duncan’s son will be a far more frightening king than his usurper.
Sometimes both sound and vision missed the mark – there was no discernible “cry of women” announcing Lady Macbeth’s suicide, and when the audience were cued to put on paper crowns as Macbeth’s vision of the Stuart dynasty, they couldn’t hear the (recorded) line or find the crowns. Despite this, stellar performances by Ainslie, Joseph and York make Creation’s production well worth seeing – wrap up warmly, and enjoy the beauty of one of Oxford’s less-visited colleges.
Creation Theatre’s Macbeth runs until 13 September at Lady Margaret Hall. Standard tickets cost £22 and are available online.