It’s a dark October evening, but Big Telly encourage us to make it even darker as we settle in front of our screens to watch the iconic Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. With lights suitably dimmed, instructions to throw salt over our shoulders to ward off witchcraft and to write our locations out to be displayed, the message is that we are to be immersively involved in a production that is not straightforward. We should prepare ourselves for whatever may come.
This is a highly ambitious enterprise, with all of the cast located in different places in Ireland and the UK, yet performing live amidst complex technology. It starts strongly, with a parliamentary briefing hosted by the three witches, referencing protection against Covid and witchcraft; contemporary yet simultaneously alluding to ancient ways; respectable, yet suspect. This sets the style for the production going forward as it unapologetically clashes modern technology against a classic play. The witches are in a theatre, from where they remotely stage manage events occurring elsewhere, creating a feeling of temporal and spatial insecurity.
The drama is spliced with surreal film clips and special effects that add layer upon layer to the performance, giving depth to what is an otherwise truncated script: at only 1 hour and 20 minutes this is a pretty short Macbeth. That sense of displacement and dislocation, set within the Zoom format, actually complements the play text itself, a story of equivocation and dualities. Even in the moments when speech goes out of sync with the performance it’s unclear if this is intentional, or a nod towards the ambivalence within the play.
Clearly some elements of the story are lost to its editing, but there is alternative compensation for this in the creative format; for example, the missing comic relief of the porter is offset with entertaining interactive audience participation which literally puts the spectator in places such as Macbeth’s castle and the theatre. Perhaps it’s a little hammy for a Shakespearean tragedy, but it’s certainly innovative. This though is as deep as the immersive element gets, so it isn’t entirely thrilling as an interactive device selling the larger play.
The cast, all very strong performers, manage to keep the pace up despite being challenged by the physical distance between them and having to do tech simultaneously. Sometimes, however, more focus on their delivery of the iconic text rather than on the technological tricks could add emphasis to the tragedy, such as with the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, and Lady Macbeth’s “Out damned spot”. Scenes which should stand strongly for themselves, but are somewhat overpowered by the visuals. Additionally, there is a lot of close-up work in the show which can be very effective in representing the characters as they are ‘cabin’d, cribbed, confined’ in feverish psychological intensity, but tended after a while to become a bit ‘Talking Heads’. It may benefit from more contrasting wide shots to remind us of the broader effects of the mayhem and to give balance, particularly in the latter half of the production.
This Macbeth is full of energy and clever technical trickery and has a talented cast, but in trying so hard to be clever it probably goes over the top. Having said that, it is still a very interesting project with a lot to offer that just needs greater balance to even it out. The spooky set-up of an evening of immersive edgy witchcraft ahead doesn’t quite come off, and although enjoyable, it left me feeling just a little short-changed.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Zoe Seaton
Produced by: Big Telly Theatre Company
This show is available as part of Belfast Festival until 17 October, and then in partnership with Creation Theatre between 21 – 31 October. Booking details can be found on Big Telly’s website below.