Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Macbeth

It was Emma's birthday earlier this week. I'll not tell you how old she is, but what I can tell you is that we decided to go to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the weekend. It's one of her favourite places. Mine too, and with good reason for it is chock-full of beauty, culture and er..........swans.

In the interests of doing something new and special to celebrate, we took the opportunity to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Friday night for a performance of Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, I know very little about Shakespeare. The very limited educational opportunities afforded to anyone with a physical disabilty during the 1980's have seen to that. Actually that's a bit of a cop-out. When it comes to learning about Shakespeare I'm like the man begging on the streets paved with gold, imploring passers by to spare some change when in fact it is strewn all around me. Yes, my schooling was more limited than that of those horrible bastards I like to call ABLE BODIED PEOPLE, but the real reason I know so little of Shakespeare is because until last Friday night I did not care to know.

The performance began at 7.15 and so, after leaving work at lunchtime and being held up in some horrendous Friday afternoon traffic there was just time to eat, and hit one or two of Stratford's picturesque bars. The Encore is one such quaint establishment tucked away on the corner of the main street which faces the main square leading down to the river Avon. And the Swans. Acquiring any liquid refreshment in the Encore looked unlikely at one point as hordes of similarly minded folk gathered at the bar, manned only by a single person. That is to say he was working on his own. I did not enquire as to his domestic arrangements. Again I did not care to know. Dinner (tea, to you and me) was at The Golden Bee and to be quite frank I almost threw it back up when the curse of my hiatus hernia struck once more. As is the norm these days ownership of a wheelchair means that one has to raise one's hand at the bar and ask Miss for permission to spend a penny. I ended up having to ask Sir, in fact, and while I was waiting for him to locate the keys to the fortress that is the lavatory I very nearly barfed my chicken burger over a very pretty lady sat on a stool by the door. Obstructing the door, actually.

So anyway, the theatre. A quick and sneaky glass of red later (£9 for two if you want some tips on where not to drink before you take in a show) we entered the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is small. I don't know why but somehow I had imagined a much grander and more spacious venue might host the performances of arguably the most famous acting collective in England and quite possibly the world. Not so. Even from the raised section near the rear which accommodates wheelchair users I could have been no more than about 20 feet from the front of the stage. It's emtpyness at that point made it look an even less likely venue for something of such magnitude. The stage managed to look dusty and battered, like something we might have performed one of our God awful school plays on when I was seven. I hated those plays and I hated always having to play Joseph in the nativity especially. Were my current, atheist, nay-saying self to be placed in to the body of that naive seven year-old he would pretend that he was unable to read and thus render himself ineligible. It was a good enough excuse for half of the people at that school at that time but I have already bitched enough about the standard of education among the physically challenged under the Thatcher government. Yes I'm blaming Thatcher. What of it?

At performance time the tiny, dusty Royal Shakespeare Theatre undergoes the most mesmerising transformation. It gains atmosphere as the seats around you become filled and then, when the lights go out and the spotlight hits the centre of the hitherto modest stage area, something genuinely inspiring begins. Being so close you immediately feel part of the action, a sensation that is only heightened by the actors' running on and off stage via the wings which run so close to the seated audience. Quite often you can hear a character entering the fray before you see them, giving the whole thing a sense of expectancy and anticipation. You can't always understand what is being said given the old English in which it is written, but the acting is so expressive and the delivery so powerful that even a rudimentary overview of the plot will enable you to pick up much more than any of my fellow Shakesperian virgins might imagine.

And so to the plot. The Macbeth of the title has done some spiffing things in battle, saving the life of Malcolm, son of Duncan, King of Scotland. As such he is chosen as the subject of a prophecy which decrees that he will become something called Thane of Condor (quite a privileged position I'm told, several rungs better off than say.......Minister of Transport) and then eventually King of Scotland. You might know something of this prophecy being delievered by witches in the original play. Hubble bubble, toil and trubble? All that? No? How about the scene in The Young Ones when Vyvyan is told by the witches that he will be king of the whole house hereafter, and Thane of that little gravelly patch next to the garden shed? Well anyway, the witches are considered to be quite central to the plot of Macbeth but in this particular version they are conspicuous by their absence. Their place is taken by a trio of the most spooky children I have ever seen. It's quite difficult to transfer to the written page the way they say 'Macbeth', with an endless delay on the second syllable, almost like in song. It all adds up to maximum spookiness in any case, as does the way they enter the stage, suspended from the ceiling on large hooks. At first it looked like they were hanging, but that could have been the wine.

So anyway, driven a little squiffy and power mad by the prophecy, our man Macbeth (played by the strangely but not off-puttingly Irish Aiden Kelly) proceeds to kill just about everyone he sees as a threat to his predicted destiny. His wife (Aislin McGugan) tops herself when she realises how up the wall things have become, while the excellent and dreadlocked Banquo (Steve Toussaint) is a constant and ghostly presence. It all leads to a sublime climactic duel with MacDuff (Daniel Percival) who tells us brilliantly that he 'has no words, my sword is my voice' before finally giving the throne-hungry Macbeth the damn good thrashing that he ends up so deserving of.

At almost three hours in length (including an interval of around 15 minutes or so) it is surprising how quicky the time passes, a testament to the quality of the acting and the power of the drama. And of how quickly time flies when you are trying to understand something written in a version of English used 425 years ago.

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