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.

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