Teatr Biuro Podrzy
For the month of August, alongside their existing Watch This Space programme of outdoor events based on the ‘grass’ in front of the main entrance (which this year comes complete with sofa and standard lamp), the National has erected a new temporary outdoor performance space on the other side of the theatre, Square2.
Within this cordoned off area by the river front they are staging two pieces of international theatre that come trailing plenty of festival buzz. First up is Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? by Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy, a critical hit at last year’s Edinburgh festival. This will be followed by Les Groom’s Three Penny Ring Cycle.
Running for just over an hour, this is Macbeth condensed, the play’s key scenes transplanted into a dark, war-time world, with strong visual echoes of Mad Max. The play is not rooted in any specific time or place, this is an anywhere-world where men (and women) thirst for power. The three witches are depicted as white-veiled, black robed figures who stride around on spindly stilts and are immune to gunfire, rising up after being shot like Michael in the Halloween movies. Macbeth himself charges round the place on a motorbike complete with sidecar, wearing a full length leather duster, while his hungry-eyed wife wears a figure hugging, cream-coloured coat paired with biker boots, part Elizabethan lady, part dominatrix.
Music pounds, fires burn, severed heads rattle within what appears to be a giant tombola drum, and a child Banquo’s son plays with a crown of bullets. The air is scented with petrol and when the king is slain, blood oozes ominously from the centre of a gold disc high above the main performance space, a climbing frame of metal platforms and poles. The piece fully understands its limits as outdoor theatre, and relies heavily on the visual, with dialogue reduced to mere snippets, yet it retains a real sense of cohesiveness; it is not just a series of startling images thrown together for the sake of it, but a world that works on its own terms, a bleak, ravaged, dictator-driven landscape pleasingly in sync with its source material. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spoken sections are the weakest, over-amplified, inevitably accented, and lacking in nuance.
The combination of motorbikes and flames, not to mention the stiltwalkers and towering, telegraph poles that are sent clattering to the floor at pivotal moments, creates a real sense of physical peril. The final scene of the ghostly dead stalking towards the fortress, Birnam Wood made flesh (well, kind of), is particularly sinister, genuinely unnerving.
And while, this being London in the summer, the rain did, at one point, attempt to dampen things, the crowd stoicly donned their hoods and jumpers and stood firm. It soon eased off. Indeed the brief summer shower somehow enhanced the atmosphere, merging with the taint of petrol in the air and the smoldering fires. This is a visceral theatrical experience, and while over-fond of mucking about with motorbikes and not big on subtlety, it is full of striking imagery. Kudos to the National for bringing this to London.
Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? runs until 9 August 2008, with an addition performance on Friday 8 at 11.55pm.