I’ve enjoyed two contrasting theatre performances in the past week, at two wonderful and contrasting theatres within a stone’s throw of each other.
The Old Vic at The Cut, Waterloo, has been around for almost 200 years. It’s a fantastic space, intimate and grand at the same time, where you feel you could reach out and touch the actors from the velvety red stalls and ornate balconies. The theatre’s website has an amusing history timeline – I liked Charles Kingsley’s description of it as ‘a licensed pit of darkness’.
The current production, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, has plenty of darkness about it, but one shining light at the centre – Eve Best, whose depiction of the duchess casts radiance across the stage. The set is magnificent; a dangerous gothic affair of walkways and pillars, whose skewed perspective intimates the moral crookedness of the time. As with all productions of this gruesome play, the light goes out rather with the death of the duchess in the second act – and, my goodness, she takes some killing. It’s not easy viewing.
I read an interview with Eve Best where she defended her character from the charge of victimhood, pointing out that she chooses to re-marry despite knowing the possible dangers, and even at the last interview with her brother, she protests that she is too young and beautiful to shut herself away, with no husband or children. This is a woman too full of life and lust to submit to men’s rules, and the price exacted is high.
Despite appearances, The Globe at Bankside, Southwark is a newcomer compared to The Old Vic. The recreation of Shakespeare’s theatre, a short distance from its original site, opened in 1997. But the experience of entering the wooden O, smelling of thatch and timber and other people, feels much older.
The Globe is currently undertaking a madly ambitious, wonderfully generous, ridiculously cosmopolitan exercise, Globe to Globe, showing 38 Shakespeare plays, performed by groups from different countries, in their home languages. I had contemplated going on my birthday, but Titus Andronicus in Cantonese seemed a little unfestive, so I opted for murder at the Old Vic instead. Then a friend who is learning Polish offered a ticket to Macbeth, performed by the Kochanowski Theatre from Poland. I knew the play well enough for the language not to matter. (I once reviewed three Macbeths in a fortnight, during my theatre critic days. I could give you much of it by heart.)
The production was aggressively modern. The court became a bunch of loutish, drunken gangsters; the witches were transvestites and whores, delivering kareoke and blow jobs as well as prophecies. Lady Macbeth was a raddled blonde in a nightie, knocking back pills and booze until her inevitable overdose. Macbeth was a slobbish soldier; Duncan a sleazy Godfather, grabbing at his men’s wives and gyrating half-naked during one of the many drunken parties.
It worked, kind of. There was no nobility to overthrow; no hero brought low by a fatal flaw. These people were destined to live lives nasty, brutish and short. It was rather hard to care about any of them – a horrified pity attended the rape and murder of Lady Macduff, but she’d previously been shown falling over insensible from vodka and puffing a cigarette over her baby’s pram. Not a heroine, but a helpless victim.
While I can accept plenty of liberties with the text (and it was a loose, non-verse translation, according to my friend) I was outraged by the ending. Instead of the soldier attacking to the last, even in the certain knowledge of failure, we were presented with a Macbeth overwhelmed with grief for his wife, who put up no resistance to the khaki-clad assassins from Birnam Wood. To me this made a nonsense of the character of Macbeth, the soldier who couldn’t stop fighting.
And what of Lady Macbeth, the manipulative bringer of death, the dark shadow to the Duchess of Malfi’s light? She seemed… unnecessary. One wondered why Macbeth took so much persuading by his harridan wife, in this back-stabbing, treacherous world. This was a Macbeth without heart, horribly plausible, where temptation into evil seemed almost superfluous.