I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
On Saturday afternoon we were at the Everyman to see the Filter Theatre production of Macbeth that was passing through, on tour. Filter have gained a reputation for innovative and exciting theatre since 2003, and this was certainly no routine presentation of what is one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays. I learnt the play as an O-level text, and have seen it performed two or three times since, including Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production at Stratford, a sort of Jacobean black Mass with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as the murderous couple. Filter’s is a cut-down 75-minute version that might be difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with the play.
In Filter’s version the play begins, not on Shakespeare’s blasted heath, but in a bare space occupied centre-stage by two simple tables loaded with an array of musical instruments and electronic mixing desks. The three witches of the opening scene appear in the form of some electronica band – Kraftwerk perhaps – constantly at their keyboards, twiddling knobs and dials, tapping chimes and xylophone keys, and stroking a violin bow to conjure up sounds that that shriek and disturb. It’s if those sounds reflect the noise inside Macbeth’s head – the ‘knocking at hell-gate’ – that form an insistent refrain throughout the play:
What is that noise?
Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?
Amongst the battery of instruments manipulated by the musicians (who remain in place, adding their unsettling soundtrack to the play) is a theremin, something I’ve never seen before, only heard on the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’.
The company comprise just seven performers, including the three or four who twiddle the knobs. They are all dressed simply in jeans and t-shirts; the production is totally reliant for its success on the drastic re-working of the text and the way in which the music reinforces some of Shakespeare’s most memorable verse.
The company have managed to slash the text to an hour and a quarter by eliminating a good deal of the dialogue in which Shakespeare narrates the military advances against Macbeth’s murderous rule. Snippets of these are synthesised through speakers, as if heard broadcast on a badly-tuned radio. Overall, scenes have been spliced together in order to strengthen the narrative drive of Shakespeare’s original text.
Ferdy Roberts as Macbeth (with Brodie’s Notes) in Filter Theatre’s Macbeth
Does it work? On the whole – yes, much better than I expected having read a couple of qualified reviews beforehand. There are some marvellous touches, such as when, in preparation for the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth sets out party bags at each place setting, adding cans of Coke, bags of Wotsits and party noise-makers. There is a sole moment of humour when, with a touch of Brechtian distancing effect, after Duncan’s murder, and at the beginning of the steady psychological unravelling of the murderous couple, Macbeth reads aloud of their fate – from a copy of Brodie’s Notes.
There are several times when the use of electronic sounds is particularly effective. When Macbeth returns for his second visit to the witches, and asks them whether Banquo’s descendants will inherit the crown, the four respond to his question with prolonged and terrible laughter, amplified by the synthesiser, their cackles echoing endlessly. The murder of Lady Macduff and her children is powerfully suggested by the simple expedient of suddenly switching off a baby monitor. Most memorable of all was the representation of the advance of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane by means of a growing chorus of electronic birdsong.
Another memorable moment came with the best example of an actor’s instantaneous response to an audience interruption that I’ve ever witnessed. Ferdy Roberts as Macbeth had just launched into perhaps the best-known and most poetic verse of the play:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death.
He had just reached that point when someone’s phone rang; without a pause, Roberts said, ‘turn that off’ and continued: ‘Out!’
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Seeing the play once again was, indeed, a reminder that, though it may have the over-familiarity that comes from being year after year a GCSE set text, Macbeth has some of the finest poetry of any Shakespeare play. So, despite the text’s truncation in Filter Theatre’s production; despite the stripping away of any sense of place or time represented by costumes or stage sets; and despite acting that did not delve very deep into the psychology of the leading characters, Macbeth ‘s terrible tragedy still emerged powerfully from the clamour:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
In a significant adjustment of the text, Filter ended back with the Weird Sisters (‘weird’ meaning ‘fate’ in Shakespeare’s day). These Fates have predicted, but they have also triggered thoughts and actions. The production ends with the witches words once more echoing in the air:
When shall we three meet again?