Macbeth @ Open Air Theatre, London

cast list
Antony Byrne
Sarah Woodward
David Peart
Peter Duncan

directed by
Edward Kemp

On a lingering summers evening, the Open Air Theatre is ethereal. Tree pollen falls around its long circumferential bar transformed, sprightly, by the ascendant moon. The air is thick with spring; a lung full makes you giddy even before the Pimm’s kick in.

You’d think such circumstances would make a directors life easy. Apparently not. Whilst Edward Kemp’s Macbeth does attempt to capitalise upon this natural benefaction, it can also be said to hide behind it. The final, moonlit battle is dynamic and exciting a series of smoky tableaux populated by soldiers emerging from dense foliage. The stage is opened out and we are there in the forest, with them.

The battle’s inception, however, is delivered by well-lit sculptures. The stage collapses in upon itself, and we find ourselves increasingly aware of our stiff backs and creaking necks. The environment simply cannot compensate for a lack of imaginative thinking.

Yet things started out so promisingly. A thundering plane is heard overhead. There are explosions and chaos; a Hummer onstage, Kalashnikovs and iron crates and modernity. The return to convention is as sudden as this departure from it, and the plays introduction becomes awkward and annexal, a sloppy attempt, perhaps, to find an analogue in the politics of regime-change today.

Had Kemps Macbeth had the courage of its convictions, this may have worked admirably. Emphasis is placed on those lines downplaying ideas of moral absolutism, and as such hints at the relativist approach adopted by much post-Iraq reporting.

Sarah Woodward’s Lady Macbeth is another site of ambivalence. Her first appearance reading her husbands letter and fearing his nature actually manages to be too conniving, too wicked; her wish to be celestially unsexed is superfluous because she is already fallen, and utterly. There is a touch of Emperor Palpatine in her bass drawl.

This is not to say that Woodward’s performance is bad, far from it. She backs up her repugnant suggestions with a seductive grin, and even I found myself obliging. But if you drain a character of all humanity, you are left with mindless automata: pathetically driven by evil and unaccountable for its actions. It is less disturbing because we are unable to relate to it.

Anthony Byrne’s Macbeth was haunted and despicable, but his portrayal will not be remembered. Unlike his partner, he draws too much sympathy. His portrayal fades in comparison with other recent examples of the part – Sean Bean springs to mind, despite his flaws.

To conclude, Macbeth struggled to make a great impact. This may be, in part, a matter of vocal projection an inherent problem outdoors. The players were, after all, struggling against rustling leaves and inbound flights. But such an image is telling: Kemps production, whilst competent, simply could not fill the space.

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