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Macbeth review at Shakespeares Globe London

Eve Best’s directorial debut at the Globe begins with a burst of drums, a driving primal sound. It’s an exhilarating opening, the whole cast united on stage, the audience primed for what’s to come.

The last major Macbeth at this venue was in 2010; directed by Lucy Bailey and starring Elliot Cowan; it was a high concept production in which a black net was draped over the groundlings turning them into a kind of dark human sea. This is an altogether more traditional take on the play. After the energy of its opening minutes, it slows significantly.

Best has, of course, played Lady Macbeth at the Globe herself, back in 2001 (her performance was praised but the modern dress production, directed by Tim Carroll, drew a lot of critical flak). Here she directs Samantha Spiro in the same role. Spiro’s is a haunted and haunting performance, a very human take on the character, a woman spiralling. The relationship between her and Joseph Millson’s Macbeth is intense but somehow familiar, a volatile, believable union. He is a concentrated Macbeth, a man contained, and yet also a very physical presence.

The disparity in their sizes is used to good advantage. Best’s simple straightforward staging – Elizabethan costume, Burnham Wood represented by a few twigs in the Pit – gives the actors room and space and time, but while Millson and Spiro are often compelling, the production itself feels oddly underpowered at times.

The scenes with the three witches are suitably unsettling and other worldly, these weird wailing sisters’ pale faces potent to behold. Elsewhere, Best’s production places an emphasis on the humour of the play. Macbeth wades into the pit, commanding audience members to kiss his ring, and the banquet scene has a darkly comic quality. Bette Bourne’s high camp cameo as the Porter is very entertaining, but this is a production that never fully capitalises on the play’s potential tension – the shifts between the dramatic and the comic are muddy and it never entirely grips, at least not at the beginning. Macbeth’s initial turmoil seems all too easily resolved, and while his journey is bloody – his face and hands streaked with the red stuff – it is also a little bloodless. That said, the second half is far more focused, a tauter, tighter affair, pacier and more emotionally charged. There are some fine, strong performances from Finty Williams and Stuart Bowman as the Macduffs and the production suddenly seems to wake up. The bleak poetic power of the last scenes is considerable.

Mike Britton’s simple yet effective set design masks the ornate performance space, whiting it out much like the witches’ faces. It looks a little like an illustration by Underzo, with battlements jagged like teeth, canine and stark, a soiled space with a gaping black mouth at its centre, through which the characters drift and vanish, as they are swallowed up by their deeds.

Production Information

Shakespeare’s Globe, London, June 22-October 13

Author
William Shakespeare
Director
Eve Best
Producer
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Cast includes
Joseph Millson, Samantha Spiro, Bette Bourne, Billy Boyd, Gawn Grainger, Finty Williams, Stuart Bowman, Geoff Aymer, Moyo Akande
Running time
2hrs 30mins
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