Macbeth, Little Angel Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Ever pushing gently at the boundaries of what puppetry can and can’t do, the Little Angel Theatre’s latest challenge is a puppet adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best known and bloodiest plays, opening this year’s SUSPENSE Festival of Puppetry. Challenge is the right word, as this is no easy feat to pull off, but somehow, with typical tenacity, the Little Angel just about manages it.

At the centre of this pruned-down reimagining of the play is a concept that casts all of Shakespeare’s characters as birds. The rank-climbing Macbeth is a proud cockerel, as are Banquo and Macduff, with Lady Macbeth as a preening chicken; King Duncan and his sons have been transformed into regal swans; the witches are recast as ethereal yet vicious carrion birds. Unexpectedly, this choice is borne out by the text, in which mentions of crows and other feathered creatures suddenly leap from the dialogue. There is also something in the pecking of the chicken and the swooping of the vulture that seems oddly appropriate for Shakespeare’s tragic portrait of grasping ambition, which comes across as all the more mean and ridiculous as a result.

Perhaps unavoidably, director Peter Glanville’s production is at its most successful when visual language dominates, flagging a little during the wordier sequences. It’s challenging to keep a soliloquy engaging when it spouts from the mouth of a puppet – even Lyndie Wright’s brilliantly animated designs can only suggest so much expression. The decision to use a pre-recorded soundtrack, however, is a canny as well as a practical one, adding an aptly unsettling sense of disembodiment to the dialogue that is at its most powerful during Macbeth’s encounters with the genuinely chilling witches.

In the captivating wordless scenes, the usual enchantment of the Little Angel’s offerings is swapped for an altogether more haunting variety of magic. In one spellbinding sequence, a doomed King Duncan is offered the graceful illusion of flight, while in another a battle is suddenly transformed into a thrilling, feather-shedding cock fight. The dark atmosphere, reflected in Peter O’Rourke’s gloomy set design, is also aided by James Hesford’s original score of ominous melodies and discordant notes.

Wright’s colourful array of beautifully crafted puppets are all operated by skilled puppeteers Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James, dressed from head to toe in black. Rather than disappearing behind their puppets, these three figures take on a sinister significance within the performance, hovering omnisciently over the action like the circling witches and unceremoniously disposing of the mounting corpses. Playing with the manipulation that is a necessary ingredient in puppetry, this production delicately draws out themes of fate and pre-destination, leaving us in no doubt about the unseen hands guiding the action.

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Samantha Spiro

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Samantha Spiro has acted in everything from Shakespeare to musical theatre, as well as establishing herself as a familiar face on BBC Two sitcom Grandma’s House. As she prepares to play Lady Macbeth at the Globe, she shares advice on maintaining a healthy career balance and not losing faith…

How difficult was it to make the transition from drama school into the theatre industry?

As far as drama school is concerned, the brilliant thing is that you just get to do lots of plays. I was very lucky that my first job was at the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park, so I continued in a similar vein. In those days you got to do two Shakepeare plays and a musical, so I played Third Witch in Macbeth and Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and everything from a canary to a courtesan in The Boys From Syracuse, which was the musical.

It felt very much like the old days of rep, which I never experienced because there were very few theatres still doing it. I was very lucky to have those opportunities to get into that kind of environment very early on.

You have described the role of Barbara Windsor in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick as one of your big breaks. What impact did that production have on your career?

Because it was at the National [Theatre] and we filmed it, it had the knock-on effect of opening doors. But it didn’t feel like it at the time, it didn’t feel immediate. I don’t feel there’s been any one moment in my life where suddenly everything’s burst into technicolour and everybody has been knocking at my door. It’s been more slowly-but-surely.

How do you maintain a balance between theatre and television work?

I felt for many years that theatre was my main source of employment. But in the back of my mind I knew that there probably was a better balance. Although the worlds do feel very separate, I think that the more you’re seen on television, the more people want to come and see you in the theatre, and the more chances of you getting better roles. It’s only really in much more recent years that I feel as though I’m doing a bit of both. I absolutely love it, but I’m always eager to get back to theatre. 

Is there added pressure with taking on an iconic role like Lady Macbeth?

It is an iconic role, but I think you just have to free yourself of those pressures. Most of my favourite actors have played this part brilliantly, but when you come to it you’ve got to think of it as a new play and pretend that nobody’s played this part before, because otherwise you do drive yourself mad and you’ll lose your nerve.

Do you have any advice for young actors?

Try and work as much as you possibly can and try and create as much as you possibly can. If the acting work isn’t coming in then keep active by writing or by trying to get in on the production side of things. Just keeping at it if you’re passionate about doing it is the best thing, because there’s no logic. As long as you’re part of the business, I think things can happen at any moment. To not lose faith.

In Focus: Creating a back story for Lady Macbeth

Joe Millson – who’s playing Macbeth – and I agreed very much on what our back story is. The back story for us is about having had a child who died within the first few weeks of its life. 

I’m approaching playing Lady Macbeth as a woman who had post-natal depression and had evil thoughts about her baby, and then the baby does die, so she’s left with this huge, gaping hole in her life. And her husband feels guilt towards her and wants to try and help her out of this.

Going through birth, going through post-natal depression, and then going through the loss of a child has left her with a chasm to fill. That then gives me the springboard or catalyst for what happens in the play.

Macbeth, Globe Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

At the Globe to Globe festival, murder has never been such a social event. All of the major scenes in this brashly vibrant Polish production seem to occur at lavish parties, under the watchful if drink-blurred vision of the witches, here recast as a gaggle of gloriously camp transvestites. In these hedonistic surroundings, as a slurring, stumbling Duncan attempts to strip and unapologetically feels up Lady Macbeth, the plot-propelling act of violence seems more of an escalation of well-oiled passions than an act of calculated ambition. This is homicidal guilt figured as one long hangover, as Michał Majnicz’s increasingly dishevelled Macbeth howls his way through murder after murder.

Despite possessing such a familiar plot, little is recognisable about this reimagining of the play. Numerous inexplicable alterations have been made to Shakespeare’s text, including the addition of a scene-stealing witch named Lola, who might well have been inspired by the Kinks track. But while it may bear only a passing resemblance to the Scottish Play that British audiences are used to, this Macbeth has clearly been designed as a visceral experience rather than a linguistic, intellectual one. To overcome the language barrier, Teatrim Kochanowskiego have drawn on pop culture and visual bravado; colourful, explosive images assault our retinas, while music – everything from Michael Jackson to ‘I Will Survive’ – throbs away in the background. It is messily joyous spectacle, tragedy in the style of Steps rather than Aristotle.

Grasping for any overarching metaphorical unity to tame this sensory riot produces empty hands. There are loosely recurring motifs, the most prominent of these being an overt, swaggering sexuality that lends the production its cautious ‘adult content’ warning. Majnicz and Judyta Paradziń as the bloody handed couple crackle with mutual lust, a sexual desire that seems tangled up with their murderous acts, while one witch unexpectedly indulges Macbeth with a blow job following his ascent to the throne. Amid a circus of playful, riotous colour, one of the production’s most genuinely disturbing images is presented in a scene in which Lady Macduff is brutally raped. Yet when reassembled, these strands do not weave into any identifiable shape. If there is a defining texture to the piece, it is one of vague seediness pasted over with sequins and glitter.

No matter how fragile the basis for its interpretation, however, the sheer visual audacity of this production is enough to provoke a wistful yearning for more aesthetic creativity in British theatre. Flaws aside, this is an ideal marriage of production and festival, eventually embracing the party atmosphere that seems to buzz from the Globe. It may not be Macbeth as any of us know it, but this is anarchically beautiful, visually ingenious, vodka-drenched fun.