It would be fair to say that I am hypercritical of Shakespeare productions. Partly, this stems from my love for the plays; partly, from the fact that I have studied them, acted in them, directed and taught them and, so, I go into them with my own notions about how they should be done. How rare and wonderful then, to find myself watching a Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios directed by Jamie Lloyd, which made me want to stand up at every turn and cheer "Yes! Yes! This is it!"
From the moment I walked into the auditorium to see it transformed by designer Soutra Gilmour into a grungy window looking out on a dystopian future or an alternate reality - it doesn't matter which - presented in the round, I had a feeling it might be special. But then again I've been to many brilliantly designed productions which fall within the first few lines of delivery.
It is a familiar trap to treat a Shakespeare work as something much more than a great play and, in so doing, end up presenting something much less than a great play. No such mistakes from Jamie Lloyd. The line between being attentive to the verse, meter and beauty of language and delivering it so that it sounds like natural speech is an incredibly fine one. The brilliant ensemble found it with unerring accuracy. There was no pulling it about to the extent that music, rhythm and alliteration make it sound like a very long poem. There was also no attempt to reduce it to duller, modern prose.
Here was a production which did not shy away from exploring the nature of violence - both in the act and its consequence. Like Hitchcock in his iconic farm scene in Torn Curtain, violent death was not easy, swift or poetic; it was filthy, grotesque and took an unbearably long time.
It would be a cliché to say that James McAvoy inhabited the part; also inaccurate. It's much closer to the truth to say that he was possessed by it. Every beautifully rolled Scottish word, sounded like it had just occurred to him and issued forth that moment for the first time. His take on the character, as someone composed of equal measures of courage, doubt and a dark sense of humour at his own predicament, was innovative yet true. He is no Hollywood star, trying to prove something. He is a supremely talented, consummate professional who holds nothing back.
He was supported by a thoroughly excellent ensemble. Claire Foy's Lady M should have perhaps started from a position where internal fragility was kept more in check, encased in tougher metal, if only to give herself further to travel - but that's a mere trifle based on personal taste. By the latter stages she was heart-breaking. Honourable mentions must go to Jamie Ballard's Macduff, whose handling the news of his family's demise reduced me to a weeping mess, and Olivia Morgan as the Porter, who crafted a superb moment of truth and laughter in this glummest of environments.
Jamie Lloyd understood the play totally. If the Bard had an estate, they might - quite rightly - demand that nobody else is allowed to direct this work. His light and deft direction was evident throughout: From a simple hand-gesture during the first meeting of the couple which tells of their trouble in conceiving and the profound effect it has on their actions, to the prediction of Macbeth's downfall coming from Macbeth's own lips rather than the witches'. His touches were never intrusive or showy and always enhanced the story; they will be copied in many a lesser production for years to come.
This is a show which has the capacity to spark a life-long love affair between a Shakespeare novice and his work, while deepening and reaffirming the appreciation of an already converted lover of it. Which makes it an absolute triumph in my book.
Macbeth is on at Trafalgar Studios until 27th of April. More information and booking, here.
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