Reviewed: Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios

The last king of Scotland.

Macbeth
Trafalgar Studios

Macbeth Trafalgar Studios James McAvoy’s Macbeth is blood-spattered from the moment he strides on to the small, constricted stage at the 400-capacity Trafalgar Studios, located a short walk from the political power play of Westminster. The stage has been raised and extended into the first four rows of seats. There are additional seats on the stage itself. The effect is one of intense claustrophobia and it’s as if, clustered so tightly around the players, the audience itself is implicated in Macbeth’s murderous crimes.

McAvoy has spoken of how playing the role of Macbeth is “like being mentally ill and being beaten up a lot”. Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen. The emphasis is less on the poetry and the inner torment of Macbeth than on the externalities of action, combat and slaughter.

At various times, Macbeth vomits, bleeds and spits as he kills out of ambition and then keeps on killing, because he can, because he must. The sense of propulsion is all. In this version he is present at the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. In a gripping and desolate extended scene, he thrusts a knife into Macduff’s young son who is hiding beneath a table on top of which his mother lies dead, having just been strangled.

Macbeth has cropped hair, a thin gingery beard and a thick, muscular neck. He is young (McAvoy is 33) and highly mobile, skidding across the stage on his knees, descending from a ladder with the speed of a fireman. His accent, like most of the characters – with the baffling exception of Macduff – is generically Scottish. He dresses in steeltoe- capped boots, army fatigues and a mangy jumper that could have been borrowed from one of Beckett’s tramps. He is self-possessed but also self-doubting: he knows he is a usurper and that, no matter how much blood he spills, he too will be usurped. He understands what he has lost and how ultimately he is his own murderer.

McAvoy delivers the long, final soliloquy of self-recognition – “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow . . .” – sitting on a chair tilted slightly backwards, in a rare moment of repose. He is not melodramatically self-pitying, merely self-aware and resigned, and he cackles at the absurdity of it all and the meaninglessness.

The setting is the near future after some unexplained ecological catastrophe, in a ruined, now-independent Scotland (Alex Salmond take note). One feels keenly in mood and atmosphere the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s great dystopian novel The Road (2006), with its shattered landscapes and “days more gray each one than what had gone before”. The air is fetid and the interiors are dimly lit. The furniture is scarcely serviceable and the stage is as gory as a butcher’s shop. Even nature is eating itself.

The three witches, or weird sisters, first emerge from trapdoors beneath the stage in an opening sequence that never ceases to startle no matter how it is played or reinterpreted. The RSC production of Macbeth I saw at Stratford in 2011, set against the dissolution of the monasteries and the anti- Catholic pogroms of the Reformation, had not adults but three blonde children in the role of the witches. They entered suspended on wires from above, like macabre fairies, their voices echoing menacingly.

In Lloyd’s production some of the minor characters carry guns, while Banquo’s son wears headphones and is listening to music when Macbeth’s assassins strike. The three witches, who wear gas masks, appear to be looking at mobile computer screens when they first encounter Macbeth. It’s as if they’re reading the text of his future but, like mediums, can only speak in metaphor and riddles.

Yet, on the whole, technology seems to be no longer working or is of little use in this ravaged Scotland, “so afraid to know itself”. There are no telephones and Macbeth sends his wife not an email but a letter in which she reads his account of the witches’ strange prophecies. No sooner has she read the letter than Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth is demanding to be “unsexed” as she readies herself for the diabolical deeds to come and for the violation of her own humanity.

It’s awkward, this sudden transition Lady Macbeth must undergo from good to evil, from reading her husband’s letter to persuading him there’s no alternative to killing a king, and Foy manages it well enough. It’s clear from the text of the play and from the interaction between husband and wife that the Macbeths have recently endured the death of a child. But one struggles to feel the pathos of their loss, partly because there’s little feeling of genuine erotic need or enraptured mutuality between McAvoy and Hoy, these co-conspirators and would-be king killers.

Lloyd’s Macbeth is the first in a season of works, some newly commissioned, that will explore the compulsions and compromises of power at the Trafalgar, “just a few steps away from the centre of British politics”. They’ve started well.

Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, until 27 April

James McAvoy as Macbeth and Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Johan Persson

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

Hugo Glendinning
Show Hide image

The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.