Dismembered limbs, ghostly chanting, smoke, and an unearthly soundtrack of bells: director Iqbal Khan has pretty much nailed the Scottish Play’s famous witches scene.
Unfortunately, the rest of his ‘Macbeth’ struggles to follow its formidably stylish opening. For such an amped up production, Tara Fitzgerald’s turn as Lady Macbeth is weirdly underpowered: she’s deadpan where you’d expect her to be steely. And without a fearsomely ambitious wife goading him on, Ray Fearon’s fine performance as murderous Scots noble Macbeth is a little at sea. They’re a remarkably ordinary-seeming couple, struggling their way through a bleak succession of political machinations.
Other parts fizz with life. Nadia Albina is a riotous Porter, flirting in fishnets and getting the biggest laugh of the night for taking Donald Trump’s name in vain. And Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Macduff is a compelling, steadfast presence, stealing scenes with his crisp command of Shakespeare’s verse.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that where Emma Rice’s season-opening ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was a shining example of what can go right when you throw out the trad Shakespeare rulebook, ‘Macbeth’ is an example of what can go wrong. Iqbal Khan has thrown a cauldronful of batshit directorial decisions at the production. Plenty of them are interesting, but they don’t come together to form the longed-for heady brew.
He’s placed a small, silent child on stage – presumably to amplify the horror of what we’re seeing. But the kid looks more nose-pickingly bored than shocked by the unfolding action. Khan uses recorded sound (an innovation The Globe disapproved of until this season) to fill the space with menacing growls, but they feel kitten-like compared to the raw power of the onstage band. And a design that’s heavy on twisted black metal, flapping sheet-ghosts and trapdoors is beset by a bewildering array of technical malfunctions - this is hardly state of the art stagecraft. What looks like a giant gothic alien baby is a particular lowlight, its tangled appearance raising a subtle titter. But more importantly, all this portentious doom and gloom just isn’t scary without the central horror of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s emotionally intense rise to power.
The black metal aesthetic could be an excuse to see Macbeth as a brutal warrior, slashing his way to the top. Instead, we get timid little pokes, their impact coyly concealed with a shield that’s positioned as carefully as a showgirl’s hat. Without the stabs of violence at this story’s heart, it feels about as chilling as a teenage goth’s bedroom.