THE POLITICS OF wickedness is something so well trodden in the world in which we live, that it feels disappointing to see Fred Abrahamse take a traditionally black and red and contextually erased response to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tale Macbeth. There have been so many monsters in our midst who have committed ghastly crimes related to naked ambition, in broad daylight; a contemporary Macbeth arguably needs to open the doors to the tale’s universality.
Open the doors in other ways, Abrahamse certainly does, in terms of costume and casting decisions and the kind of ghouls that go bump in the night, to say nothing of the soundtrack that cues the scary moments. But there’s the rub: you know this is a scary play from the get go and the cleavage of 17th century values of morality and greed, to say nothing of lethally blind ambition or madness inducing guilt, are not given the kind of relevance that would really scare you and make you think about this play beyond being a pleasant evening out.
As is his wont, Abrahamse has pared the script down radically, making full use of just six men in black pleated skirts and leather boots to tell it all. Unlike previous works in this model, including Richard III and Hamlet, something’s amiss here, in the credibility and continuity stakes.
You feel this most of all in the representation of Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff (by Tristan de Beer and Tailyn Ramsamy respectively), where the character feels uncomfortably draggish, hurting the focus of both tragic roles. The former at one point bears markings on his chest redolent of mastectomy instructions, which draws inappropriate laughter from the audience. Also, puppets are used for the children – the ghoulish children who appear in the witch-induced fantasy, but the real children too – Banquo’s son, Fleance, and Macduff’s hapless boy. The odd thing here, is the puppet in question seems too to be doubling up on roleplay, which injects a dollop of ambiguity that too, hurts the focus. It’s a pity that the casting hand which paints two of the men in the work women, doesn’t see fit to stretch the acting skills of his cast to paint two of them young boys.
And then there are accents: Scottish is understood to be appropriate for the work. But American? And a doctor who speaks like a Peter Sellers character who would be in better dialogue with a caged parrot?
The witches wear masks in a classically African style, on the tops of their heads and this offers hope in the eeriness department, but there is a fudging of believability. Had these heads, which might make you think of South African sculptor Jane Alexander’s classic work The Butcher Boys, been a little more life-size and a little better positioned on the crowns of their wearers, the witches would have been able to take flight with a lot more vehemence.
It’s not all compromised, though: While the set, which rests on an enormous table and the concept of dining, is very potent, if you’re looking for one primary reason to see this show, that’s easy: Jeremy Richard. And it is his performance, particularly in the role of the porter, that will make you forget any other faux pas in the work.
Richard has a stage presence that will make you laugh and give you goosebumps. His farting, belching opportunist porter who takes Shakespearean values to the brink of feeling Beckettian, is the magic ingredient that holds the levity of Macbeth in a trembling hand.
- Macbeth is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features design by Fred Abrahamse (set and lighting), Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer (costumes), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (composer) and is performed by Matthew Baldwin, Nicholas Campbell (from August 26), Tristan de Beer, Stephen Jubber (until August 25), Marcel Meyer, Tailyn Ramsamy and Jeremy Richard, until September 9 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways, Johannesburg. Call 011 511-1818.