Reviewed by James Karas
Near the end of Macbeth, Malcolm orders every soldier to cut down a branch and carry it in front of him in order to fool Macbeth as to how many forces are lined up against him. Director Paul Stebbings seems to have used the same trick in the casting of his production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre in Shanghai. The forty characters of the cursed Scottish play are presented by six actors!
True a good number of minor parts are eliminated but the rest are done by the six actors with some of the quickest costume and role changes this side of the Yangtze River.
Stebbings is the founder and Artistic Director of TNT Theatre, a troupe that travels far and wide including Beijing and Shanghai. Its reach seems boundless with productions like King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and other plays. Its grasp my not be as successful if this production of Macbeth is any indication.
Stebbings has some original and even inspired ideas about the play. He makes the Witches a focal point of the play and he expands their role through music, dance and unexpected appearances. When Macbeth speaks his famous “Is this a dagger that I see before me” soliloquy, we see a Witch kneeling on the stage holding a dagger. This is brilliant.
The Porter scene is always held up as being very funny but how many times have you laughed while watching a production of the play? Stebbings will have you roar with laughter. The Porter (Garry Jenkins) is young and athletic, and he has a wench. The two are provided with music and they dance, do some acrobatics, fool around and provide a marvelous and unexpected scene. When the Porter says that alcohol increases the desire for sex but reduces the ability to perform, his wench sticks her arm between his legs pointing upward and then downward. Well done.
Unfortunately there is also a minus side to the ledger and here there are some serious deficits. The only “set” is three panels hanging in front of the black curtain at the back. The lighting consists of some string spotlights from the back of the theatre and the only thing that they can do is be made bright or dimmer. At times, the actors look as if they are acting in front of the headlights of an approaching car.
The combination of set, lighting and ramshackle costumes gave the feel of a production in a high school auditorium. That “feel” detracted even from the acting which was at least competent if never much more than good.
Martin Christopher as Macbeth and Louise Lee as Lady Macbeth only touched the surface of the murderously ambitious couple. Rebecca Naylor seemed uncomfortable as Malcolm and was better as Lady Macduff. Michael Wagg was a somewhat wooden Banquo whereas Dan Wilder invested Macduff with drama and humanity.
With only six actors, you can’t have a decent dinner party let alone a banquet scene. Unfortunately, the play does have a banquet scene and Stebbings takes a stab at doing it without guests. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk to an empty stage (they don’t even have chairs and a table) and as one may suspect, the scene does not quite work.
At the end of the banquet scene, Macbeth goes down into the audience and sits on an empty aisle seat. Whatever the intended effect, the result was laughter from the audience.
Macbeth is supposed to bear a curse and productions are plagued with accidents. This production did nothing to allay that superstition.
There were large screens on each side of the stage in order to provide a translation of the text for the largely Chinese audience. As Macduff was announcing the murder of the king, the screens froze. The audience started shuffling uncomfortably because they could not follow the action. The Windows logo appeared on the screens and desperate clicks of the mouse followed. The hapless technician found the text and he had to scroll from the beginning up to what was happening on stage.
Macbeth may not have been fooled about the number of soldiers he was facing but he did believe that the forest was moving. In any event, he was killed by Macduff and not by the superior number of his enemies. We were not fooled by the number of actors that Stebbings has and would have preferred more with better sets, costumes and lighting and to hell with superstitions.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare played from November 21 to December 8, 2013 at the Lyceum Theatre, 55 Mao Ming Road, Shanghai, China