Hilda Fay as Lady Macbeth and Bob Kelly as Macbeth in the Mill Theatre production.

Hilda Fay as Lady Macbeth and Bob Kelly as Macbeth in the Mill Theatre production.

How mad are the Macbeths? One of the defining characteristics of this text is its relative brevity, in terms of the Shakespearean oeuvre. It makes it an appealing choice for Leaving Certificate essay fodder, but presents something of a challenge to the practitioners who are undertaking to present it. Because it hits the ground running, the audience needs to know fairly sharpish that the Lord and Lady have the potential to lose their grip on reality entirely.

Given that there are seemingly endless narratives that involve remorseless killers — go and switch on the telly, now — to be presented with co-conspirators who achieve their ends and then go bananas, well... a modern audience, especially one populated by teenagers, are bound to be a bit skeptical. Like, what is their problem, anyway?

It’s all down to interpretation. Not only our interpretation of the play: it’s down to what Macbeth himself takes away from the witch’s prophecies, particularly in the second act, and in his Lady’s perception of what she herself is capable of. So much emphasis is put on the idea of ambition, and so much is put on the Lady’s madness, that it’s easy to overlook what happens to Macbeth’s mental state. Both are ripe for the paranoia, madness, and chaos that results from their actions, and when both equally descend down into the depths of the aforementioned, it makes for a more coherent experience. In the Mill Theatre’s production, three very clear choices are made, and have created the space for the remorse to unfold, in a believable and heartrending manner.

The first occurs when Macbeth receives the initial predictions from the weird sisters. Bob Kelly subtly but very clearly undergoes a mental shift: upon hearing the proclamation that he "shalt be king hereafter", Kelly visibly takes this charge on board, and from that moment, that very second, the complications begin. It’s there in the text, for sure, that this happens — Banquo asks him why does he start, and seem to fear things that do sound so fair — but this is the first time this reviewer has ever actually seen it demonstrated with such clarity.

The second is Lady Macbeth’s (Hilda Fay) response to the news that Duncan has arrived at her castle, so soon on the tail of her husband’s letter relaying the oracular news. A soliloquy that can be presented as just that — as the actress talking to herself aloud — is instead given the weight of an incantation. This was aided and betted by a simple lighting change, but it transformed what can be seen as a straightforward, if portentous, pep-talk into a dark charge to the lower powers to help her bring about the murder most foul. And in that, we can more easily perceive why the poor lady comes over all unhinged.

During the ‘Banquo’s Ghost’ scene, both Macbeths meet in their own particular states of mental distress, and here Geoff O’Keeffe has directed his lead actors, again, in one of the best interpretations of that scene this reviewer has seen. It is relatively underpopulated, which works to good effect: only three revellers accompany the Macbeths and the Ghost, and it makes the new King’s reactions even more inappropriate and deranged. It also gives his Lady, as the hostess in charge, even more reason for desperation and impatience. Arguably, it all falls apart just here, at that exact event, and both actors do the scene great justice.

The rest of the play wavers somewhere between the heath of old school and the moving wood of innovation: it begins with a youtube-y exegesis of the themes of the play, and then reverts back to a more traditional approach of vaguely old time-y costuming and properties, despite Duncan’s leather trousers and Macbeth’s bare-chested sporting of a woad-like substance for his armour in the final scene. Gerard Bourke's set is abstract and works well enough; some of the exits and entrances don’t make the best use of the playing area; the cast are not uniformly able for clear and natural speaking of the text. The use of rear projection brings its usual plusses and minuses: good use of madly racing clouds across the sky, but the degree of darkness required to make those images viewable often leaves the actors poorly illuminated.

It makes for somewhat inconsistent viewing, but the pleasure of seeing vital choices well-conceived and well-implemented is inviolate. The audience was its usual adolescent self, but also seemed far better behaved than usual, a testament in itself the Dundrum theatre’s presentation. Given that this reviewer has lost count of the number of times she has not only seen Macbeth, but has also seen it in adolescent company — that’s saying something.

Susan Conley is a cultural critic and author. Her latest book is That Magic Mischief (2013).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

1 - 9 February, 2013

Produced by Mill Theatre Productions
In the Mill Theatre

Directed by Geoff O’Keeffe

Set Design: Gerard Bourke

Lighting Design: Barry Donaldson

Sound/Digital Design: Declan Brennan

Costume Design: Sinead Roberts

With: Bob Kelly, Hilda Fay, Steve Gunn, Kevin Shackleton, Anne Mekitarian, Muriel Caslin O’Hagan, Hilary Madigcan, Brain Molloy, Tom Ronayne, Finbarr Doyle, Declan Brennan, Kyle Hixon, Kate Canning, Liam McEvoy