It is hard to make Shakespeare feel fresh. Especially a play like Macbeth, performed so frequently and studied almost to exhaustion in schools. This Oxford university student production under the direction of Georgia Nicholson attempts to fashion the Scottish play anew by returning to the old: resisting the fashion for Elizabethan-styled productions in favour of the original 11th century Scotland setting; pruning any aesthetic ornateness to present a stage sparse in scenery, lighting and sound.
At times, this pared-down approach adds a fresh sheen to the bard’s familiar words. Unencumbered by a complicated set, the barren production daringly places the actors as the sole focus of St Hilda’s JDP stage. Fortunately Christopher Page and Hannah Chukwu perform the famous speeches of Lord and Lady Macbeth with a gritty, naturalistic emotion that never teeters into melodrama. Their mutual love is convincingly portrayed and we are confident that it is rooted in much more than simply ambition and lust. Page even turns the seemingly-dismissive “She should have died hereafter” into a spectacle of emotion, falling to the floor and sobbing [persuasively] as he speaks. Standout scenes include the dinner feast where Macbeth hallucinates the murdered Banquo in his own seat – not only does Page deliver lucid fury and despair, but Lady Macbeth’s personal embarrassment over her husband’s public behaviour adds unexpected humour to the scene and greater credibility to her frustration with her husband’s fear.
Indeed, despite the 11th century sparse realism, this production never takes itself too seriously, as Shakespeare adaptations are prone to do. A strong comedic performance by Naomi Heffer gives the night-porter scene well-deserved laughs, and she deserves equal comic credit for her role as a young Macduff mocking her mother. Cai Jauncey deserves particular commendation for bringing a sympathetic emotional intensity to Lord Macduff, highlighting the brutality of Macbeth’s deeds in her desperate cries upon the discovery of the murders of first King Duncan and later Macduff’s family. All the actors remained calmly professional when technical issues caused strobe lighting to flood the stage in the second act, briefly undermining the dark, minimalist aesthetic.
At times, this pared-down approach adds a fresh sheen to the bard’s familiar words.
In the very first scene we see how the pared down production can truly deliver in intensity. The play begins, as has become almost a staple of Macbeth performances, with the death of Lady Macbeth’s child. But here the baby is represented merely by a white towel bundled in Chukwu’s arms. One of the witches stands behind her chair, and the first movement of the play is a simple one – the witch lifts the bundle from Lady Macbeth’s arms and shakes out the towel, after which the lights drop leaving still darkness. No cry is uttered. This masterful simplicity shows us how quickly the things we hold dear can escape from our grasp. As the baby returns to what it always was, a simple stage prop, we comprehend that things are not always what they first appear. It is right from this first scene that we see how less, thoughtfully constructed, can be more.
Yet the presentation feels stripped back too far in places. For a play anchored on kingship, the absence of a crown, sceptre, or even throne presents challenges. There is scant visual difference between Macbeth as Thane and as King – this is a position he murders for, yet there is little change in his costume, nor is it brought out in his interactions with other characters. A welcome addition would be a ceremonial coronation scene, or at least the public application of new ceremonial face markings. These blue tribal face-patterns, while visually impressive, lacked a coherent logic, perhaps a consequence of the multi-part acting. When one witch lifts her veil, the exposed blue face-marking undermines our sense that it signals membership of the tribal kingdom.
Perhaps because of the minimalism pervading the stage, when props are used, it is to dramatic effect: a tense silence fills the auditorium when Page lashes out in sudden, violent fury in his soliloquies, knocking his chalice, chair, armour and finally his fist against the wooden floor. This production is built on such aggressive, fear-driven silences, with the purposeful absence of music and sound effects creating a stark plain backdrop, matched by the wall of St Hilda’s auditorium, which emphasises the significance of every quiet still moment. Producer Seb Fox encourages the cast to use the stage edge to “blur the lines of our fourth wall” and frequent use of the runway through the audience adds to this effect. Placement of the witches so close to the stage edge, facing us but never entirely visible to the other characters, cleverly puts them in that slightly liminal space between actors and audience. Location of Duncan’s chamber behind the audience produces a strange, haunting sense of audience complicity.
Overall, this was a strong production which was sometimes let down due to the minimalist stage. That said, it was a very enjoyable evening, at times intense and at times even funny.