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Macbeth of Fire and Ice, Arcola Theatre – Review

William Shakespeare
Directed by Jon Gunnar Thor
★★★

Pros: An unorthodox approach to the Scottish play. Big on atmosphere.

Cons: Stage smoke billowed into the audience in ever-increasing quantities during the latter half of the show!

Our Verdict: An interesting curio that doesn’t quite live up to its full potential.

Credit: Jon Thorgeir Kristjansson

I must confess that I have seen two other productions of Macbeth in the past 12 months, but when I heard of Macbeth of Fire and Ice, which purported to merge elements of Norse mythology with Shakespeare’s prose, my interest was piqued.

The play opens with one of the cast reciting lines from one of the ancient Scandinavian poems. Then as you would expect, the Weird Sisters appear – except they’re not witches as traditionally portrayed, but the Norns – the Norse Fates. On stage, the ‘threads’ of men’s lives stretched from the ground to overhead at various angles, resembling something that was a cross between a spider’s web and a spirograph installation.
One thing you notice when watching Jon Gunnar Thor’s version of Macbeth is that it is abridged. It rattles away at a fast pace and there is little that takes place that doesn’t directly concern Macbeth or his wife. While the shortened play works a lot of the time, scenes such as where Lady Macduff meets her end were noticeably absent and left a big vacuum, though this was addressed somewhat by acknowledging the fate of her child.
One of the more successful elements of the play was the use of a cello throughout. It was pre-recorded, but layered over with live playing. It was a pleasant addition to the play and helped to accentuate certain scenes, though occasionally silence during speeches would have been more appropriate. During moments of tension, musical director Harry Napier (who also played Duncan) borrowed a cue from Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight score by taking one note and stretching it for an unnaturally long time. Later, as the play was coming to a close, the bursts of brass instruments accompanied the string arrangements. This mirrored the musical climax of The Wicker Man – a fitting homage, seeing as that movie was set in the northern-most Scottish isles near Scandinavia and the protagonist was trying to evade his grisly fate. The use of real fire in the latter half of the play also added a palpable frisson to the proceedings. 
Having seen other performances of Macbeth where Malcom, Banquo and Macduff were readily identifiable and had distinct personalities, I felt that that side of things wasn’t fully fleshed out in this production. From my perspective, it didn’t help that all the male actors (who played multiple parts) wore similar modern black attire. You were made to wonder, in any given moment who they were meant to be playing.
Mark Ebulue who played Macbeth, had an undeniable physical presence, but beyond his martial prowess, I didn’t feel the character’s supposed charisma, nor the magnitude of the conflict within his warring heart.
Molly Gromadzki, on the other hand, stole the show as Lady Macbeth. In terms of her relationship with her ‘stage husband’, it felt at times like watching George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. She was decisive and had an overabundance of passion, literally possessed by the dark forces she invoked to fortify herself. Ebulue’s Macbeth, meanwhile, was a passive, unthinking soul away from the battlefield. Instead, the play emphasizes how much Macbeth and his men are ‘Natural Born Killers’ in close combat, similar to the brutal ‘Mandingo’ fighting depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Asides from a few references to the thunder god Thor that were thrown in and the aforementioned Norns, there was little evidence to suggest that this production was channelled through the prism of Norse folklore. This being the case, it felt like the production flirted with these ideas, but didn’t go the extra mile to show their relevance. This is one occasion where a radical re-imagining of Macbeth would have been better than the half-measures made. In addition, incongruities such as the use of a gun at one point in the play, highlighted the need for a consistent vision.
In closing, this production of Macbeth as solely a physical spectacle wasn’t bad at all. However, so much more could have been made by the Norse angle and so, felt like a missed opportunity.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Macbeth of Fire and Ice runs at Arcola Theatre until 16th November 2013.
Box Office: 020 75031646 or book online at http://www.arcolatheatre.com/tickets-for/arcola/macbeth-of-fire-and-ice

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