Performing at The Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch (proud recent recipient of the 2020 Stage Awards’ London Theatre of the Year Award) in collaboration with Derby Theatre, director Douglas Rintoul and a talented, diverse cast make a valiant effort to bring Shakespeare’s superstitiously so-called Scottish Play into our modern era – one in which, some may say, it does indeed seem that certain individuals’ reckless political ambition will soon come to set Scotland at bloody odds with England.
There is certainly no lack of meta-dramatic punch, then, to this new iteration of the classic political thriller. Indeed, one could even find themselves feeling somewhat regal in the vast, well-appointed space of the Queen’s Theatre as this undoubtedly artful production plays out. Between them, Designer Ruari Murchinson, Lighting Designer Daniella Beattie, and Sound Designer Paul Falconer have crafted beautifully evocative technical work with their set. As the play begins, an inspired clash of light and shadow immerses us in the backstory of war and strife, and throughout the 2-and-a-half-hour runtime, the drama is accompanied by picturesque Gothic imagery aplenty, bringing a wonderfully engrossing atmosphere to proceedings. The stage is a characterful presence unto itself, most befitting of a play that revels in the sinister machinations of unseen ghostly forces.
Rintoul confidently directs the work to move at an often bewilderingly swift, panicked pace, perhaps trying to evoke feelings of the Macbeths’ guilt-ridden panic at their terrible deeds, a choice which doesn’t necessarily work, particularly in the work’s first half, and especially before the grisly regicide central to the plot. Although those already familiar with the text will be able to comfortably follow along, and the cast are no doubt full of a range of diverse experience and talent, it nevertheless feels as though they are rushing through the text most of the time, without giving much of Shakespeare’s wonderfully evocative wordplay time to breathe, and to properly impact the audience. A play of murder most foul this may be, but its pace need not be quite so break-neck.
In a work that thrives on a deliberately slow build-up of unbearable tension, everyone being in such a seeming haste to recite the lines cannot help but feel like an oddly inappropriate directorial choice. Many talented people end up deprived of chances to deploy the full depth of their skills when so much of their focus seems to be on hurrying things along, and this is a great shame, since many of the play’s best moments come precisely when the pace slows down enough to enjoy their work. Paul Tinto’s Macbeth proves capable of delivering affecting monologues and commanding real stage presence when he is not distracted by having to hurry – indeed, his whole performance is worsened at those times when he is compelled to overplay maddened ranting with far too much speed, ending up almost totally unintelligible to the audience. This is most unbecoming of a play that absolutely depends on the clear and precise use of language by its actors, particularly one that already has the proper pitch and pace built-in as standard by iambic pentameter in the first place.
So, too, do Lady Macbeth’s best moments come from laying off of the production’s full throttle. Leading lady Phoebe Sparrow’s screaming anguish and maddened sense of unreality is genuinely, wonderfully disturbing to behold when she is being given the time and space to play out the moment to its full dramatic potential – but she is let down for much of the rest of the time by too much pressure to hurry. Many of the play’s talented cast are reduced to performances that feel as though they are little more than too-hasty readings, when much of their best material is arrived at during deliberately slower moments. Amongst them, Rikki Chamberlain is hugely entertaining as the bumbling Porter; Martin Johnston is a fine King Duncan, as well as a solid double act as a Doctor, together with Connie Walker’s Gentlewoman; Adam Karim is a compelling Banquo when given the chance; Ewan Somers is full of righteous fury as Macduff, with Danielle Kassaraté bringing beautifully performed presence to Lady Macduff, as well as a variety of smaller roles; and Tilda Wickham makes for a striking, motivated Malcolm refreshingly free of gendered convention.
Quite apart from the sometimes absurd speed of the run – one perhaps too conscious of our ravaged attention spans in the digital age versus a hefty two-hour-plus runtime, especially with the school-aged in attendance – an argument could be made that this production also somewhat over-eggs the Gothic pudding at times. One counts rather a few dramatic lightning strikes amongst the technical cues, perhaps so many that it is in danger of sending this production veering headlong into 1930s Hammer Horror territory best avoided.
Nevertheless, few could argue that this is not a beautifully staged production, and one full of genuine passion and stand-out moments, amongst them, a genuinely thrilling, pacey finale – even if, rather unlike the brutal, cruel murder of King Duncan, t’were not best this were done quickly.
It runs until 29 February
Review: Christopher O'Dea Giordano Photo: Mark Sepple