Review: Macbeth at Jacksons Lane

There’s a lot to like about Proteus Theatre’s original take on Macbeth, especially if you’re a fan of all things 80s. The action of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been transplanted to the cut-throat financial markets of London in 1987, inspired by the crash of Black Monday. Director Mary Swan’s vision is one that fits well with the story of Macbeth, in which power is everything and rivals will stop at nothing to come out on top – but despite some solid performances and strong design decisions, the production as a whole never quite takes off.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Unfortunately, this is largely due to an unconvincing portrayal of Macbeth by Riz Meedin. Though he does a decent enough job as the hen-pecked husband who’s browbeaten into regicide by his scheming, ambitious wife (Alexandra Afryea), the character never really develops beyond that. Even later in the play, his Macbeth still feels hesitant and not at all like the murderous tyrant hellbent on slaughtering men, women and children alike to secure his position. If anything, Danny Charles’ slightly sleazy Duncan and Jessica Andrade’s manipulative Malcolm come across as more threatening.

While both Charles and Andrade prove themselves adept at playing multiple parts (including a couple of very entertaining cameos), the play’s strongest performances come from Alexandra Afryea as Lady Macbeth – already at the brink of insanity when the play begins as a result of both her ambition and her grief for a lost child – and Umar Butt, in two very different guises as Banquo and Ross; his appearance as the ghost Banquo is one of the play’s most striking (and gruesome) scenes.

The 80s setting is cleverly worked in; each scene change is heralded by another classic hit, and the characters’ power suits and corded phones leave us with no doubt what decade we’re in. Instead of a crown, the current “king” is portrayed as a sort of mafia don figure with their coat draped across their shoulders, Macbeth snorts cocaine before murdering Duncan, and Banquo and Fleance head out for their fateful ride wearing motorcycle helmets. Katharine Heath’s clever multifunctional set design finds the characters first battling it out on the stock exchange trading floor (with Duncan and Scott on the rise; a nice detail) but with a few simple rearrangements transforms into a lift, an office, a dinner table and a phone box, among others.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

The concept does slightly lose its way in the final battle, because it’s not really clear who’s fighting who, or how or where. The confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth also feels a bit anticlimactic, although the framing of Macbeth’s killing as a hit rather than a death in combat is interesting and gives the play’s conclusion an original new angle. There’s certainly no lack of drama, either, with Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting design bringing an intensity to the stage even at times when it’s missing from the performance.

Shakespeare’s work is so frequently performed that it’s refreshing to see a version like this one, which makes you consider a story you know well in a completely different way. It’s also great to see Shakespeare performed by an entirely BAME cast, something we still don’t see enough of in London. Tapping into the greed and corruption of the business world is a clever move, so it’s a pity that the production itself – though imaginatively staged – doesn’t always reflect the necessary ruthlessness to quite carry it off.

Review: The Machine Stops at Jacksons Lane

Dystopian fiction is starting to feel a little too close to reality lately – and although E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops is set in a future version of our world, some of the themes – the politics of fear and mankind’s increasing dependence on technology among them – feel disturbingly current more than a century later.

Juliet Forster directs Neil Duffield’s faithful adaptation of the story, in which humanity has retreated underground, unable to continue living on the Earth’s surface. Direct contact between individuals has all but died out; everyone keeps to their own room, exchanging recycled ideas and knowledge with others via video chat and avoiding sunlight, travel or anything that might bring them into physical proximity with other people.

Photo credit: Ben Bentley

Life underground is supported by the Machine, a system invented by humans to supply all their wants and needs. But as time passes, it becomes less obvious who – or what – is really in charge… Only the rebellious Kuno (Rohan Nedd) can see what’s happening, but can he convince his mother Vashti (Ricky Butt) of the danger before the Machine stops?

Pilot Theatre’s chilling production takes place within designer Rhys Jarman’s futuristic metal cage, which develops a life of its own as Maria Gray and Adam Slynn crouch, climb and swing among its cables and wires. Movement director Philippa Vafadari has the two interacting with a mesmerising synchronicity and fluidity, which only falters when the Machine begins to fall into disrepair, its failing condition reflected perfectly – and rather poignantly – in the physical tics and stammering speech of the performers.

Ricky Butt is grim-faced and stubborn as Vashti, refusing to accept the truth about the Machine or the outside world, but also cutting a vulnerable figure as she shambles halfway across the world to visit the son she claims to have no time for (parental responsibilities – and presumably affection – are supposed to cease immediately after a child’s birth). In contrast, Rohan Nedd’s Kuno is full of youthful energy and passion, painting a picture through words and movement so that we can see and feel every second of his illicit trip to the Earth’s surface – and encouraging us, perhaps, to take another look at the surroundings we take for granted. Music by John Foxx and Benge helps complete this picture; the tense, repetitive strains underground contrasting with a crescendo of joyful choral melodies as Kuno explores the outside world.

Photo credit: Ben Bentley

Whether Forster really suspected his story would come true we’ll never know, but there’s no denying the play strikes a chord. In a world where we increasingly choose to communicate through technology instead of face to face, where do we draw the line between convenience and the risk of losing all human contact?

Worse, there’s no suggestion that any of this is the Machine’s doing; humans created the Machine and its rules, not the other way around, and then simply sat back (quite literally) and allowed it to take control and tell them what to believe – and what to fear. In this scenario, which hits a little too close to home, humankind brings about its own destruction… and that, perhaps, is the most terrifying idea of all.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉