Monday, 29 March 2010

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth – a play of darkness political ambition, violence and brutality, is one that never seems out of fashion. The employment of violence and terror to seize and retain power seems to be constant features of human society. In this sense the themes of Macbeth are universal; they don’t just apply to Jacobean England and Scotland. It is a play frequently performed round the world because people find its story has a resonance for them.

Currently at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre, this latest production from Cheek By Jowl is stimulating, stark and dark. The stage is bare and there are no props to speak of: wooden boxes serve as seating from time to time. Fights, battles and murders are mimed; the witches are devolved into the ensemble: as are the many lords and thanes surrounding King Duncan’s court.

Duncan is blind – both literally and to ‘noble’ Macbeth’s machinations. The comic porter scene is grotesque and jarring. The sense of ‘warriors’ bonding in a manly fashion is conveyed well but also illustrates the disjunction between obedience to state demands and the potential abuse of power.

Macbeth is a fast-moving play: the eponymous thane goes from a brave soldier upholding the status quo and overthrowing a potential usurper, to becoming an actual usurper of state power himself in a few short scenes. He quickly gains this power but gets mired deeper in brutality and murder trying to retain it.

He soon alienates most of those around him and clings to his position by employing fear, terror and murderous violence. The only support the Macbeths essentially have is what they give each other and – as they ponder and reanalyse their crimes – this mutual support becomes increasingly vital but difficult.

One of the high points of the evening is Macduff’s response to the news of the murder of his wife and children. The straightforward humanity of his reaction offers a fine contrast to the – in many ways – over-analytical, and essentially self-inflicted torments of Macbeth and his wife. Macduff’s reaction also offers a further contrast to the ambiguity of Banquo’s response to the Witches’ predictions about himself and Macbeth that have set in motion the train of events. It is almost possible to suspect that, had Macbeth not arranged for his murder, Banquo too might have become a player in the dark political game overtaking Scotland.

Will Keen as Macbeth and Anastasia Hille as his wife give fine, edgy performances as the Macbeths move from crime to madness to death, Ryan Kiggell is an ambiguous Banquo and David Caves as Macduff conveys well the possibility for the survival of humanity and responsibility in a volatile and murderous world.

Silk Street Theatre Barbican until 10th April

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Last seen on a London stage 36 years ago in an RSC production, Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard returns to the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a new version by Andrew Upton.

The story centres on a family called the Tubins and is set in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, in 1918. The First World War is coming to an end and the Germans are retreating; the civil war in Russia is in full flow with Nationalist Cossacks, the Russian Red Army and the White Guard (members of the Tsarist army) all fighting for control of Kiev.

The Tubins – the White Guards of the title - are presented in a sympathetic light. In character, the family and their friends are similar to those in a Chekhov play – except they are perhaps not as fully realised. They are a class of people out of tune with their times, whose sense of entitlement coupled with an intellectual and moral inertia leaves them unable to act or seriously influence their own destinies. The tensions in their lives are between the historical reality they are living through and their idealised interpretation of the sort of society they imagine they live in. They are only vaguely aware thet their dreams and nostalgic outlook are actually being overtaken by the advance of history.

However, Bulgakov also shows us that even the privileged (the Tubins) can be betrayed by those they defer to, such as the occupying German forces and their own White Guard High Command. This is most potently illustrated by the flight of Talberg, Elena Tubin’s husband, who leaves his wife and brothers-in-law to their fate in Kiev while he saves himself and his political ambitions by fleeing to Germany. Similarly Shervinsky an aide-de-camp of the Germans’ puppet ruler of the Ukraine changes his position depending whichever rival force is in the ascendancy in order to survive.

This welcome revival of Bulgakov’s play is spectacularly staged: the Tubins’ apartment glides to the rear of the Lyttelton to be replaced by the vast headquarters of the occupying Germans, which in turn is supplanted by the cramped Headquarters of the Nationalist army rising from beneath the stage. These tricks give a sense of the epic scale of the events of the Civil War and how easily individuals can be swept away in the turmoil.

Howard Davies directs a fine ensemble cast. There are notable performances from Conleth Hill as the chameleon like Shervinsky and Pip Carter as the comedic Larion – the Tubins’ cousin.

Lyttelton Theatre

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

In this touring production originating from the Theatre Royal in Bath, Rosamund Pike shows that Hedda Gabler truly is a female stage character as destructive as Lady Macbeth.

Hedda is bored, spoilt and manipulative; the daughter of a military man, she has recently married the pedestrian academic Tesman. They have just returned from their five-month honeymoon; a time largely spent in pursuing Tesman’s bookish research interests rather than Hedda’s more worldly ones - or indeed, what would be most natural of all, sharing a romantic holiday after their wedding.

The society they return to is small, limited in imagination and conventional. The men in it are boorish, self-obsessed and lacking in empathy. The woman – whatever their station – merely exist to serve the needs of the men.

However, Hedda does have free will and even some power. She chooses to exercise this in a malign and bewilderingly destructive way when Thea Elvsted and Loevborg, figures from Hedda’s and Tesman’s past, re-enter their lives.

In this production sparky young woman are paired with much older duller men. The unattached males are either sexual predators (Judge Brack) or fatally flawed dreamers with a destructive weakness (Loevborg and his alcoholism). The women depict various sorts of service that the male world requires from them – servant, mother substitute, clerical assistant, sexual conquest.

When Hedda destroys the only copy of Loevborg’s major work – having already urged him to suicide – the stage darkens while she burns his book page by page in the stove. There is a palpable sense of evil in the act.

The conclusion of the play is equally chilling. Hedda is ignored while it is agreed that Tesman and Mrs Elvsted will reconstruct Loevborg’s work from his notes, while Judge Brack will cover up Hedda’s role in Loevborg’s suicide – as long as she satisfies his rapacious appetites. She is as entrapped into her suicide as she entrapped Loevborg into his.

This is a compelling play simply and effectively staged. Director Adrian Noble draws fine performances from a strong cast, with Rosamund Pike a notable Hedda.

Now touring to Nottingham and Oxford.