With the return to live theatre and the excitement of season announcements running months ahead, the energy and enthusiasm for hybrid approaches has noticeably died down. Perhaps that is inevitable given the long period of closure, but it hasn’t disappeared completely, particularly among smaller venues whose limited physical capacity can be considerably expanded with live streaming of sold-out shows. And the model for this is something venues are quietly experimenting with, enhanced by the National Theatre’s recent announcement that its NT Live cinema screenings will resume in 2022. The question for theatres is how to find a judicious balance between in-person and other forms of content that valuably enhance its artistic programme and access requirements.
At present, venues are taking quite different approaches to providing online content. The Donmar recently recorded its Constellations series performed at the Vaudeville Theatre and is now offering them in a rentable ‘as live’ archive format, much as the National Theatre has done with its past production catalogue available via its subscription service National Theatre at Home. But these two organisations are also joining forces to bring Kit Harrington’s February turn in Henry V to a cinema audience in a mixed model approach.
Over at the Young Vic, there is a commitment to screening all of its big shows at some point during the run, offering a selection of dates once public performances have begun and looks to the NT Live approach of having in-person and online audiences simultaneously, something that requires careful organisation and camera placement to give both an equally weighted experience. The Old Vic managed this with its version of The Dumb Waiter, although future support for the In-Camera series, of which it was becoming quite adept, remains uncertain with no plans to broadcast future shows as yet.
The Almeida, however is taking an entirely different approach again, providing a Half Term week of online-only performances for its immersive and atmospheric but oversubscribed production of The Tragedy of Macbeth starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. The theatre is relatively new to the live stream programme, but it made a sparking entrance into this new market place with its debut online production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn which was later fully staged once the venue reopened. And with this live-stream-focused Macbeth, it offers director Yael Farber a very different medium to present her three-hour show, giving the cast four nights to play to the camera rather than trying to divide their attention between the house and your house. The result is a focused piece with a cinematic flair that merges film and theatre forms to create a truly hybrid experience.
But let’s start with Macbeth and the production choices that the camera is attempting to capture; Farber’s interpretation is a representative version of Scotland with a simplified militaristic design that favours clean lines and plain, unpatterned fabrics. Although not announced in advance, the production seems designed with the cinema screen in mind, a feature of Farber’s decision-making generally in the creation of symbolic hinterland spaces where the focus can be on character and text. The blue and white colour scheme gives The Tragedy of Macbeth a noir quality without the melodrama that looks rich and shadowy on screen, especially when punctuated by stark white light, while retaining a warmth that draws out both the darkness and passion in the text. With water and plastic screens used to create self-reflective surfaces, there is a painterly visual language that is strong and deep, translating well through the camera by creating a captivating and claustrophobic space in which to situate the drama.
Crucial to the success of any Macbeth are the character choices the Company make which determine how the play should function. Here, the leading couple are driven by pure ambition and while the be-suited three witches plant the seed, the ensuing drama emerges, quite consistently from the couple’s actions and their unforeseen consequences. With characters on stage throughout (which would be more visible to the theatre audience as the close-up camera only captures them fleetingly), the Wyrd Sisters are used to focus our attention on the couple and crucial private moments where decisions are made and where the course of events is determined.
As Big Mama points out in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the marriage bed is the rocks of the relationship and what happens in it affects the unity of the couple. And so it proves here as Farber stages intimate scenes of conspiracy and the growing distance between the Macbeths in their bedroom. The Wyrd Sisters are seen to hold on to their bedsheets between scenes and are ritualistically tasked with making the bed before the couple use it. It is a clever piece of symbolism that aligns the unity of the couple with their own eventual destiny, and as Macbeth is increasingly absorbed into his own paranoia, the once physical and passionate relationship observed on his return from war becomes about two isolated people driven apart by their ambition as well as their differing responses to the crime, all emerging from and reflected in the state of their marriage bed.
Productions often struggle with Macbeth’s character trajectory which is wavering and uncertain throughout the play so unlike most Shakespearian villains, Macbeth is plagued with deep conscience and is not a character who announces his dastardly resolution at the start as Iago or Richard III do while inviting the audience to sit back and watch a malicious plan unfold. Instead, Macbeth uses his soliloquies to examine his own feelings of guilt that constantly attack his purpose, preventing a linear progression from soldier to murderer to tyrant-king. And this is something that Farber’s approach recognises, building in these moments of doubt and confusion as Macbeth moves through the story.
It is also notable how Shakespeare uses ghosts in this play to enhance those questions of culpability and regret. Justin Kurzel’s exemplary 2015 film took a PTSD angle showing a warrior already steeped in the blood of men who died under his command in battle who reappear to him throughout. Farber’s production doesn’t emphasis this but notes the value of Banquo’s ghost in determining Macbeth’s mental state and as a manifestation of his guilt that rapidly affects his sanity. And while the ghost-figure in Hamlet appears not to his murderer but to the avenger as a prompt to action, here, Farber reinforces the connection between conscience and Macbeth’s fluctuating development that constantly second-guesses itself, retreating and advancing in ways that add depth to the production.
So, McArdle’s protagonist travels well through these complex stages, bringing out the changing psychology of the character which suits the intimate proximity of Farber’s cameras which weave in and around the action, barely acknowledging the theatrical space in which it takes place. It takes the audience right into the emotional and mental experience of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the driving force – another clear decision – in the first part of the play, shaming her husband into action and questioning his manly resolution. Later, as the rewards of their horrific deed become tangible, McArdle opts for an instant plunge into madness that explores Macbeth’s fractured thinking while couching his subsequent tyranny in these terms, as a mind beyond reason.
Less successful is actually encouraging the audience to like or to care about Macbeth as an early antihero, and this interpretation though convincing in its presentation of the ambitious warrior driven to madness by his own lust for power and his failure to calculate the consequences of achieving it, doesn’t quite capture the comradely charisma that made Macbeth not only a beloved leader of men in battle but subsequently the obvious and entirely unchallenged choice for monarch following Malcolm’s flight into exile. There is something deeply alluring in the character of Macbeth, a man somehow not beyond redemption through his self-awareness, making him fascinating and enduringly appealing to actors and audiences centuries on.
This separates him from Claudius, Iago or Richard III who have a love-to-hate quality, but there is nothing of the soap opera villain about Macbeth and instead his very human failings give him some of the hero-protagonist characteristics of self-reflection, moral consciousness and even a linguistic dignity and gravitas that Shakespeare instils in his other leading characters that encourages the audience to contemplate aspects of their own behaviour. Despite an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful approach, McArdle’s Macbeth doesn’t quite reach that attractive leader of men quality and so the viewer is never fully on his side despite ourselves which makes a three hour performance hard to sustain.
There is also a lack of romantic chemistry between McArdle and Ronan that is quite exposed onscreen and, in fact, the performances are far stronger when the leads move apart in the second half of the production. Ronan, making her UK stage debut is clearly an accomplished film actor and brings some interesting depths to a slightly expanded role of Lady Macbeth that takes over occasional lines from other roles that reinforce the development of a character trumped by her own ambition. Ronan is too light ahead of Duncan’s murder, with insufficient grounding to talk of regicide in the same tone as planning a dinner party, but Ronan builds the character from there.
A very meaningful decision places her at the home of the Macduffs and forces her to witness a slaughter she has failed to prevent – much as Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is present at an equally brutal scene in Kurzel’s film. With little explanation in Shakespeare’s text for her madness, the slow detachment from her husband and her horrified reactions to his tyranny make perfect sense for her character and Ronan is excellent in presenting Lady Macbeth’s destruction as the consequence of unexpected and graphic violence emanating from her husband’s loss of control. Although the wife of a soldier in active wartime, Ronan makes clear the protected life she has led in comparison, with Duncan’s ruined corpse her first taste of the terrible acts that her husband is in theory far more used to ordering and seeing.
The onscreen experience gives the supporting roles plenty of space and there is greater clarity in the factions that spill out from Duncan’s murder with Malcolm and particularly Macduff given a solid purpose in trying to restore the balance in Scotland’s government. Emun Elliott s Macduff is particularly affecting, a once loyal friend turned bitter enemy. Showing the close and loving family playing together around the court and good friends with the central couple as well as the implication of a loving marriage with Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff is well captured on camera and vital to explaining Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s development. And in a production in which male emotion is embraced, Elliott brings a visceral intensity to the scene where he learns of his family’s brutal demise that transcends the screen, displaying a considerable range and suggesting he might be well cast as Macbeth himself.
This approach to The Tragedy of Macbeth feels incredibly rich and, despite a slow start, once the first murder has taken place, the show builds considerable tension on screen. It’s not perfect but it is cinematic, and the Almeida’s decision to pause in-person performances for a week to produce this live stream has offered interesting possibilities in the staging and style that doesn’t need to find compromises that suit simultaneous presentation in two different forms. With live streaming potentially allowing more people to see the show internationally in one night than across the entire run, and the chance to rent it as an archive show subsequently, there may be different creative approaches to how hybrid theatre now operates in practice, but the model continues to evolve as venues find their feet.