Witches Restaged: Macbeth Directed by Stefano Reali
Great physicality, well matched ensemble and thoughtful vision.
The East London Shakespeare Company has been on my radar for some time. (Full disclosure: I Know People In The Company). I’ve seen one or two previous productions and it struck me how doggedly they kept to the principles of diversity. No tokenism in that – the company structure is to do with its creators – but it is somehow symbolic that they represent East London with its multiple cultures and accents. Even if purely incidental, based on friendship and collaboration, they embody the idea that everyone can do Shakespeare, that Shakespeare belongs to everybody – by which I don’t mean amateurship, as the company are professionals, but rather the various voices they bring onstage. And even though the conversation about Shakespeare’s accessibility has been broadening, it’s good to see those revolutionary tendencies at grass-roots level.
This time they take on board Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Macbeth. The set is sparse, the space filled with costumes and choreography. First time director, Stefano Reali, casts his mind back to Ancient Greece, exploring the inevitability of fate: to this end, he employs the Witches as the agents of destiny. The Witches were always compared to Greek Moirae (often simply translated as The Fates) however in this adaptation their influence extends further than prophecy. They don’t merely taunt Macbeth with the possibility of achieving power; no, the actresses playing Witches (Chloe Wigmore, Sofia Ferreira, Suzanne Kendall) show up in a number of small roles, those unremarkable yet necessary characters populating the Shakespearean universe. In a gender-bending slight of hand, they become servants and soldiers; they bring messages and orders, always, always overseeing Macbeth delivering himself to the prophesied bloody end. It’s a good way of utilising the cast – actors playing Witches have a number of small but crucial roles within the performance. It also changes the beats of storytelling. Macbeth is, as per canon, easily tempted and power-hungry, but he also seems even more like a marionette in the Witches’ hands.
Personally I’m always in the market for Shakespeare with a twist, so I enjoyed seeing the Witches sneak about and taunt the audience with their presence; during the banquet scene they tellingly poured wine, while Macbeth exclaimed over the bloody, pale apparition of Banquo (Bradley Crees). That scene was particularly interesting due to being set within the audience, with full lights on: a bold, well-executed choice that made me wish for more re-staging. The Rose Crown Theatre has a large stage and although I did not miss having a set – they were telling the story without it and perfectly well, too – sometimes it seemed difficult to fill all the available space. It would be worth trying to restage the play with audience on both sides, or in a half-circle, as silent participants in Macbeth’s court. On the flip side, the large space proved very useful for fight scenes expertly choreographed by Dan Burman. Even though, again inspired by Greek tragedy, we did not see any actual violence or death, there were some exciting duels with heavy looking swords (yes, that’s the extent of my fight knowledge. I did enjoy general physicality of the performance).
One thing definitely worth mentioning is the strength of the ensemble. They are all on a good level, conveying Shakespearean language with admirable liveliness and understanding. My favourite thing is when the verse sounds like casual conversation: Crees was especially good at that, very natural, with an easy manner that made listening to him a pleasure. It was also great to see Macbeth (Jesse Ayertey) played with a big voice and manner, threatening and entreating in turns: he looked like nothing else but a lion stalking a prey sometimes, the actor using his size and bulk to fill the stage. Consequently, it’s very powerful to see him struggling in the Witches thrall, both following and fighting his destiny.
Lady Macbeth arguably sets the tone of the performance and Lara Falker did so with aplomb: she dominated the stage in the red of her dress, when all other costumes were in earth tones. (Interestingly, her later madness was conveyed through lack of heels and loose hair, as opposed to hair swept up and sharp cadence of her walk; for that alone the costume designer, Eva Escribano Olmo, has my admiration: subtle but definite change). Falker brought energy and tension to the stage: Lady Macbeth’s ambition was shown matter-of-factly, without demonising or excusing it. Falker & Ayertey have fantastic chemistry as a couple, seducing each other and swapping dominance: although he is so physically imposing, the moment when Lady Macbeth tells her husband to, essentially, man up, is very hard-hitting and painful. She brings it home that it’s a play about masculinity and twisted ambition. Another moment worth remembering is the aforementioned feast: Ayertey looks genuinely frightened and Falker is incredibly believable as a wife who is trying to salvage her husband’s strange behaviour during a social occasion: a genuinely comic turn, despite bloodied Banquo walking around.
The ensemble work well together, but on the night I saw it I had one other favourite moment that I want to mention: Macduff (Igor Kerstisch) responding to the news of death of his wife and children. The character’s grief was so fresh and genuine I wanted to look away, struggled with the sheer intimacy of the scene. That one moment, with an actor who undoubtedly has an accent, proves every naysayer that it is not Britishness that entitles one to play Shakespeare – it is, among other things, the skill to convey emotion.
Macbeth takes place between the “real” and supernatural, conveyed by choreographing the witches as well as lights direction. There was a moment when Macbeth goes for further advice and reassurance and is
tangled up by the Witches in a white cloth – a ritual cloth that will ultimately wrap up his severed head. I loved how visually compelling that scene was: now I wish I could see the production in a space with even more technical possibilities for lights direction!
All in all, I have enjoyed venturing to see East London Shakespeare Company: it was a solid performance with great ensemble cast, vision from the new director and engrossing physicality. It struck a good balance between a conservative production and new vision from a first-time director, Stefano Reali. Not everything worked for me – I’m a “revolutionary gender-swapped set on Mars” kind of gal most of the time – but it is understandable to proceed with caution, both with Shakespeare and ensemble work in general. I look forward to seeing Macbeth restaged in a new venue and to further work from this company!