The one thing this production undoubtedly had was atmosphere. Set in St Andrews Castle, with a seaside sunset and a starry sky as backdrop, with the wind and the birds and the waves as naturally occurring sound effects, Macbeth was a unique and epic experience. Huddled together in blankets with hot cups of soup, there was patriotic unity amongst members of the audience. A special shout-out goes to the seagulls who flocked over appropriately for Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here’ speech and also to the seagulls who cooed precisely at her line ‘Hark! Peace!/ It was the owl that shriek’d’. (Lady Macbeth was played by the very talented actress, Caroline Howitt, who was not remotely upstaged by the birds, despite their apt theatrical timing.)
However, the effect of the venue on the drama was similar to that of drink on man – in the porter’s words ‘it made, and it marred’. Sound and distance were a real problem. The actors were competing with a large open space and wind to project their voices, making variations in intonation and volume largely impossible – an indoor stage, although obviously a boring set that pales in comparison, would have allowed for sharper, more intense acting. This is not a criticism of anyone – it was just a sacrifice that had to be made in order to make use of St Andrews’ picturesque and atmospheric resources.
The blocking must have been a nightmare to organise but it was handled well. The change in the way Macbeth and Lady Macbeth led each other out was clever – she drags him off-stage in the beginning in a very domineering fashion, and he leads her off with brute force, almost by the ear in later scenes, perfectly encapsulating the alteration of power in their relationship. And Banquo’s ghostly get-up, with its ever-dripping blood was a great touch. But otherwise I felt that scenes fell a little flat, monologues in the beginning and monologues at the end were shouted into the audience with little development, the witches entered and chanted uninspiringly, and the interaction between Lady Macduff and her son (who appeared as a daughter here) was strangely more like a bickering match than a tender tête à tête before the brutal interruption. (Once again, I don’t know whether this was the director’s choice, the actors’, or simply an attempt to be heard in the great Scottish outdoors.)
Productions like this, with traditional costumes and historical settings, are similar to those put on at the Globe Theatre in London. I understand that they are aimed at people who are looking for a ‘classic’, authentic experience of British drama. But Shakespeare is performed so often, I’m even tempted to say too often, as a rule of thumb and as a rite of passage, that artistic innovation and originality of interpretation are absolutely necessary. And it seemed that beyond the venue choice, this didn’t seem to be the focus.
This production has proved difficult to rate. As a piece of sophisticated theatre I’m giving it three, but as a St Andrews experience and a memorably fun event, it would get a solid five stars. Macbeth was a crowd-pleaser: people laughed – the porter’s fitting exclamation of ‘it’s cold’ especially raised a chortle, and everyone enjoyed themselves. The talent was clearly there, but it was overwhelmed by the set.
Image credits – Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie (photos from rehearsal)