Review: Macbeth (online) at Belfast International Arts Festival

Let’s face it, one of the few positives of lockdown has been the discovery of all the fun to be had with Zoom backgrounds – and this is an opportunity that’s exploited gleefully and to great effect in Zoe Seaton’s immersive digital adaptation of Macbeth, her fifth lockdown production since April. Five actors perform from their own homes across the country (with numbers made up where required by unsuspecting audience members) to produce a creative and deliciously creepy version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Audience members are encouraged to lock the doors, draw the curtains and dim the lights in preparation for the show, which opens not around a cauldron but at a government briefing to warn us about the pandemic of witchcraft sweeping the nation. Having established our setting – a modern and all too recognisable Britain – the story gets underway with a revelation that the three officials (Aonghus Og McAnally, Lucia McAnespie and Dharmesh Patel) may not in fact have everyone’s best interests at heart, as they leave the briefing to meet Macbeth and inform him of his future prospects. This ensures that from the start, there’s a feeling of unseen evil at work – the Macbeths are never the real villain, but merely a plaything for sinister forces beyond their control.

Lockdown imposes some obvious restrictions on the production; the Macbeths (Nicky Harley and Dennis Herdman) host King Duncan not in a castle but in their ordinary terraced house, and they have to work quite hard to establish intimacy and make their murderous plans, given that they’re never able to appear together on screen. In a way, though, these limitations work to the play’s advantage and enhance the horror movie feel – shaky handheld footage and extreme closeups are reminiscent of films like The Blair Witch Project, while hidden camera angles give a sense of the characters being watched. The death scenes are particularly well done, as Banquo and Lady MacDuff wrestle with unseen assailants before meeting their gory ends. There’s certainly no shortage of atmosphere (and a couple of jump scares), as Garth McConaghie’s haunting Celtic soundtrack and dramatic sound effects fully immerse us in the creepiness.

As for the audience participation: after an interactive opening sequence featuring a few randomly selected spectators, this becomes quite limited and at times feels more like an opportunity to show off the production’s technical capabilities than any particular addition to the plot. It’s good fun, though, and allows the audience to feel like we’re part of the performance, just as we would be if we were watching in a real theatre. So perhaps, after all, there are two positives to lockdown: the second being the creative ways in which theatre has adapted and found new ways to entertain audiences even when the doors are closed.

Big Telly Theatre’s Macbeth headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival until 17th October, then transfers to Oxford as a co-production with Creation Theatre until 31st October.

Review: Waiting For The Ship To Sail at Chickenshed (online)

When London’s theatres were forced to close last month, one of the many shows to be cut short was Chickenshed’s spring production, which was forced to end its run the day after press night. This was a disappointment not only for those of us hoping to see the show during its two-and-a-half week run, but also for the cast of 200 young people who had been working hard on the latest in a series of topical performances from the North London theatre company.

Photo credit: Chickenshed

It was welcome news, then, that the show would be released to view online, and in some ways even quite fitting for a theatre company whose focus is always on inclusivity and accessibility. While the recording undoubtedly lacks the immediacy of a live performance, it does allow anyone, anywhere, to enjoy the show, with the option to pause or rewind as needed, and subtitles to ensure as many people as possible can follow the production’s spoken dialogue and song lyrics. It’s not the same as being there, but in the absence of any other option it’s the next best thing, and perhaps this opportunity may even bring Chickenshed’s work and message to new audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be in a position to enjoy it.

Moving on, then, to the show itself, which this year takes on on the topical subject of global migration from a variety of perspectives. Combining music, dance and drama, the show charts the experience of migration through six phases, and poignantly evokes the sense of loss and isolation that comes with leaving behind the place you call home and starting a new life elsewhere, as well as the physical risk and trauma faced by so many as they flee persecution and attempt to reach safety.

It doesn’t do this through one central character, but instead tells multiple stories of people from different backgrounds, each of them with a unique perspective. We hear from a young girl who can’t understand why she’s been left behind by her father, a mother desperately seeking her young son, who’s vanished overnight in the middle of the Sahara, and – in a surprising but fascinating twist – the smugglers who justify their actions as merely responding to a demand that’s been created by others. We see heartless officials demanding proof of persecution, and traumatised refugees who survived their journey only to be faced with suspicion and paranoia from those they thought would keep them safe.

All this is performed by a cast of 200, who are on stage throughout – even when not actively involved in a scene, the ensemble acts as a silent witness to the events unfolding at centre stage. Taken as a whole, Lou Stein’s production is a visual spectacle, with lighting from Andrew Caddies that perfectly matches the tone of each phase, as well as vibrant choreography and mature performances from a young cast who demonstrate a real and commendable understanding of the show’s complex subject matter.

Photo credit: Chickenshed

While it’s inevitable that the show loses something in recorded format, the themes and stories that it explores still come through loud and clear, and the energy of the performance proves just as infectious in your living room as in a theatre. In addition to everything else, Waiting For The Ship To Sail is also a worthwhile reminder that while our minds and our media may currently be focused on one crisis, that doesn’t mean other, equally urgent, issues have gone away, or become any less deserving of our time and attention.

Watch Waiting For The Ship To Sail online now – it’s free, but donations to Chickenshed are welcome and hugely appreciated.

Review: Sticks and Stones at Tristan Bates Theatre

Written by Dameon Garnett in response to the ongoing debate around free speech, Sticks and Stones is a fascinating two-hander that explores how we talk about issues of race, class and privilege in 2020 Britain. In particular, the play asks where we draw the line between free speech and hate speech, and to what extent the opinions we share should be policed and punished by society.

Afua (Eva Fontaine) is a senior manager in a secondary school. Tina (Catherine Harvey) works in the kitchen. The two are friends, who socialise outside work and whose sons used to play together as children. When Afua is advised of offensive jokes shared by Tina on her public Facebook page, she has to take action – but what begins as a professional dispute soon turns personal, and escalates into a bitter conflict that brings to the surface previously unspoken resentments on both sides.

The play is only an hour long, but that short time is full to bursting with persuasive, thought-provoking lines of argument, and the traverse staging by director Rasheka Christie-Carter means that the debate pings back and forth across Afua’s office like a tennis match (there’s even a change of ends halfway through). There’s a discussion about what privilege means, about what constitutes hate speech, and about why it’s acceptable for Afua to be pictured at a protest march in a controversial outfit, but not for Tina to share a few jokes with her friends online. And, crucially, though their clash ends with a clear victor, the behaviour of both parties during the discussion prevents the audience deriving much satisfaction from her triumph.

Garnett’s skilful writing is brought to life in two powerhouse performances from Eva Fontaine and Catherine Harvey; the bitter tension between the two women, particularly in the second half of the play, is so convincing it becomes impossible to look away. Garnett has created two diametrically opposed characters, but neither is so extreme in their views that we can’t relate to them or recognise in them people we know, either in real life or online. Consequently, it doesn’t take long for the audience to become completely engaged in their argument, whether we’re firmly on one side throughout or shifting back and forth as the play goes on.

Sticks and Stones plays out on a small stage a much bigger debate currently rumbling – and occasionally raging – throughout Britain. For those who’ve already picked a side in that debate, the play is unlikely to win any hearts and minds for the opposing team. But this compelling, provocative drama certainly asks some uncomfortable questions, which should at least challenge the views we hold, and make us aware of the potential damage such bitter division can cause.

Sticks and Stones is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 21st March.

Review: The Apologists at Omnibus Theatre

The public apology is far from a new phenomenon, but in the era of online news and social media, it’s becoming more and more of a common occurrence. In The Apologists, three stories are told – by the same performer and director (Gabrielle Scawthorn and Jane Moriarty respectively) but different writers – each exploring a different aspect of a topic that turns out to provide a surprising quantity of food for thought.

In Excuses by Iskandar Sharazuddin, the first female Chief Executive of the NHS goes head to head with a terrified mother who said something bad in the heat of the moment as she watched her young daughter fight for life. The only problem is, they’re the same woman. One knows she must apologise, and does so in the blandest, most corporate way possible, while the other argues her case in far more emotional terms. The seriousness of the incident, which appears to have racial undertones, is never denied – but as we watch the story unfold, the true question at the heart of this piece emerges: why does this woman have to choose to be either Sarah’s mum or NHS boss – and if that division is expected of her by society, how can we then justify judging one persona by the actions of the other?

In the second piece, Seven, The Sweetest Hour by Cordelia O’Neill, a social media influencer comes to terms with the fact that her work has caused real harm – and worse, it’s been doing so for some time. This piece is particularly topical given recent news headlines, and asks if the validation we may personally receive from a witty tweet or savagely worded review is ever worth the damage it could inflict on someone else’s mental health. The piece stops short, however, of simply slamming Holly for her actions, focusing instead on an examination of her own mental well-being, and delving into why it’s so important to her to get that validation, whatever it might cost.

Finally, in New Universe by Lucinda Burnett, a woman watches, appalled, as her male boss issues a meaningless public apology for horrific crimes committed on his watch as CEO of a global aid organisation. In his mind, the damage is already done and he didn’t personally inflict it, so saying sorry is little more than a duty he has to get through before lunch. To her, however, his failure to really take responsibility or engage with what’s happened is the ultimate betrayal, and leads her to consider a course of action she would never previously have thought possible. This piece is a particularly tough one to watch, as it touches on issues of sexual violence and victim blaming, through the eyes of a woman who knows all too well the trauma they can cause.

All three monologues are performed by Gabrielle Scawthorn, who proves extraordinarily adept at switching characters – not just between pieces but also within them. With only very minor wardrobe and set changes to visually distinguish one story from the next, all three women nonetheless feel distinct and well-developed. Scawthorn is also a very engaging performer, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the emotional turmoil she portrays.

For a society that’s grown accustomed to public figures issuing apologies, it’s easy to pass judgment, and dismiss what we see as insincerity or the frantic damage control efforts of an unseen PR machine. And sometimes, certainly, that verdict will be right on the money. But The Apologists asks us to look a little deeper, past the carefully worded statements or overblown displays of emotion, and to consider what might be going on behind the scenes, before we make that judgment. With strong writing and compelling performance, it’s definitely one to see this week.

The Apologists is at Omnibus Theatre until 8th March.

Review: Cracking at King’s Head Theatre

Written by Cally Hayes, co-director of Alright Mate?, Cracking is an eloquent, moving and informative portrayal of what it’s like to live with – and recover from – post-natal illness. What makes this production stand out, however, is that it gives the viewpoint of both mum and dad, with the particular aim of shining a light on the often forgotten subject of male mental health.

Sam (Tom Bowdler) and Rachel (Georgia Robinson) are a young couple with a two-year-old son. It’s been a year since Rachel recovered from the post-natal illness she suffered following Tommy’s birth, but something still isn’t right. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it, but is encouraged through counselling to open up and share some of the fears and anxieties that continue to haunt him – even though, on paper, everything should be “back to normal”.

The couple’s different approaches to talking about their problems is explored very well in the short but powerful play, which combines spoken dialogue with physical movement sequences. Rachel is very open, describing her pain in intensely visceral terms and constantly seeking reassurance from her partner that everything will be okay. Sam, on the other hand, deflects awkward topics of conversation by either joking around or getting angry. He can’t talk to his friends because that would mean admitting something’s wrong – and so he internalises all the pressure and worry, focusing on the day-to-day practicalities of supporting Rachel through her own illness and neglecting his own mental health in the process.

What becomes clear as we’re watching the play is that while post-natal depression in mothers is a defined, diagnosable condition, the impact it has on fathers is much more difficult to label, and as such it often goes unacknowledged. The moment in which Sam finally breaks down and admits he’s struggling is heartbreaking to watch but also feels like a breakthrough, when both he and we begin to realise just how traumatic the experience has been for him.

Tom Bowdler and Georgia Robinson give great performances, portraying very convincingly not just the hurt and bewilderment of the present day – as they each struggle to understand why things haven’t gone back to how they were – but also the joy of their early relationship, and the fear and despair of the months following their baby’s birth. Director Kevin Johnson’s use of movement and space is also important, evoking particularly effectively the isolation both characters feel, even when they’re sitting right next to each other, and their impotence in the face of a crisis they need to identify before they can begin to fight it.

The play is one of a variety of projects organised by Alright Mate?, a community interest company that aims to normalise conversations about male mental health. Much of Cally Hayes’ script is based on verbatim testimony from parents who’ve recovered from post-natal illness, so it’s no surprise that even the most shocking details have a ring of absolute truth to them. Cracking is a sad story, but it’s a story that needs to be told – to parents who may recognise their own experience and seek help, but also to friends and family who need to understand what their loved ones are facing before they can offer support, and to the wider public to promote greater understanding of this complex issue.

Cracking can next be seen at The Old Library in Bodmin – and you can also visit the Alright Mate? website for future dates and information about the organisation and its projects.