Mortals’ chiefest enemy: Macbeth at the Manoel Theatre

Clive Judd’s production at the Manoel Theatre was an interesting approach but one which sacrificed so much which is significant in the play to streamline the text

The set was simple more in keeping with a clubroom or blackbox setting as was the case with the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow production. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina
The set was simple more in keeping with a clubroom or blackbox setting as was the case with the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow production. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

“Security is mortals’ chiefest enemy” is the line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which mostly resonates with me and captures part of the protagonist’s predicament. Alas this line is spoken by Hecate in a scene which is often eliminated from many productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish play I watched over the years.

This is partly because there have been well-documented doubts as to the authenticity of the attribution of the scene to the Bard himself, with the name of Middleton thrown in as possible author. It is likely, therefore, that even more authentic pieces from the play than this are omitted, given the tendency, in recent years, to provide re-adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and those by others. For instance, I watched a 90 minute re-adaptation/condensation of the play, in a black box theatre, at the Citizens Theatre complex in Glasgow, with the title The Macbeths. It was a two hander bedroom scene with the use of such paraphernalia as headphones and recorders to report on murderous events.

The latest production, under the direction of Clive Judd, at the Manoel Theatre, led me, because of the setting in question, an 18th century theatre, to expect a conventional approach save for the apparel. It did not turn out to be so, but more about this later.

The performance was long enough but it led to the cutting of a number of verses not least from the Porter scene with its brand of humour which is no simple comic relief mechanism. It, to the contrary, retains the tension of the tragedy – the claim to be the porter of hell-gate gains great significance given the yet undiscovered murder which has just occurred, the calamity of which is captured by the description of the weather outside (pathetic fallacy they taught us in our school days), fitting to surround a site where the temple of the Lord’s anointed has just been destroyed.

The set was simple more in keeping with a clubroom or blackbox setting as was the case with the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow production. The mist, while used time and time again in many theatre productions, constituted an effective line of demarcation between background and foreground with actors often standing in line reminiscent of our perception of ancient Greek theatre.

There were some powerful performances. Mikhail Basmadjian showed a range of emotions and spoke his lines clearly playing a character that affords greater depth than his earlier Barabas (The Jew of Malta) can ever do. He was flanked by Erica Muscat as Lady Macbeth who would temper her angelic voice in the opening scene with tirades against her wavering husband. I am not sure whether she brought out the steely ruthless determination of a woman invoking spirits, tending on mortal thoughts, to unsex her and fill her from the crown to the toe with direst cruelty. She certainly came across, in her excellent sleep walking scene, as a character broken under the weight of suppressing her natural instincts, that of someone prevented from carrying out Duncan’s murder because he resembled her father in his sleep.

(C) Mark Zammit Cordina
(C) Mark Zammit Cordina

Jonathan Dunn as Banquo, with his natural Scottish accent, was the only thing really Scottish in this play. Not that it mattered. He carried out the part with his customary aplomb and a swagger more suited to a Petrucchio in The Taming of the Shrew, which he played a couple of years back, than to a suspecting Banquo, at least if one goes for a conventional representation of the character. But a conventional staging of Macbeth this was not.

The ransacking of the Macduff castle struck me as being a shade underplayed. We had little of the sense of calamity involved, for instance no screaming Lady Macduff being pursued by assailants. There was, in my view, little opportunity for arousing sympathy for the child who was to perish in the swoop. This would have underlined even further the depths of ruthless savagery to which Macbeth plunged in his obsession with power and security. All the more reason to anticipate his final demise at the hands of he who had all his “pretty chicks” taken away from him in “one fell swoop”.

Chris Dingli’s Macduff scoured a range of emotions to finally be capable of ridding the country of the cancer inside the body politic. After all, he was not of woman born. As with most murders in this production, he stopped short of carrying out the final deliverance act. Why? Because this was no straightforward rendering of Shakespeare’s text. The whole train of events consisted of projections of the protagonist’s mind as he entertained thoughts and fantasies concerning power and the security to hold on to it. In other words, they were not necessarily enacted, according to this interpretation by Clive Judd. This point might have been clear to some but not so clear to others, assuming that one would not have read the director’s note.

All the above actors spoke their lines well and showed a reasonable depth of character. Elsewhere, there were some undistinguished performances, with the verses spoken not being clear enough.

All told, an interesting approach but one which sacrificed so much which is significant in the play to streamline the text to suit this purpose...

the bell/“death knell”, the knocking on the door in the Porter scene, important verse being whispered, the rearrangement of the twin sceptre apparition and, as is often the case, no use of the all-embracing line “Security is mortals’ chiefest enemy”, a line which today would have greater global political resonance than the way Shakespeare, or whoever else wrote it, would have intended – though this last point is for an entirely different discussion.

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