Brighton Fringe 2017
It’s a bit of a tight crush in Studio 3 at The Warren – or if you prefer, it’s an intimate venue where the audience is in close proximity to the actors. Either way, it takes imagination and skill to shoehorn in all the elements that make a performance feel like it’s taking place in somewhere much bigger.
Falling Sparrow used the space brilliantly with their acting and staging, and in the clever writing too they managed to squeeze together chunks of Shakespeare with an account of Labour Party politics from the last few decades. ‘Macblair’ isn’t a completely accurate rendering of Tony Blair’s leadership, neither is it a faithful transposition of ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ Macbeth, but it’s a bloody good piece of theatre.
If the media control and shape our view of the world, then reporters – hacks – influence what we think, and thus also what politicians say and how they act. ‘Macblair’ begins with Macblair and Macbrown, up-and-coming Labour MPs, meeting a trio of hacks on a Westminster stairwell. The hacks are the hags – the witches from the opening of Macbeth – and the first one greets him – “All Hail, Macblair. Hail to Thee. Leader of the Labour Party”. The other two hail him as Prime Minister and then as King of The World.
And so begins Macblair’s ascent to power. Straight away there’s friction between him and Macbrown – “We both know I have the superior brain, I am the obvious choice for Leader” – and the start of the poisonous enmity between the two. This of course casts Macbrown as Banquo if we’re staying true to Shakespeare, but in this version Macbrown isn’t murdered or eliminated. The ghosts are of other people entirely, as we shall see.
So Banquo isn’t murdered, but neither is King Duncan. It’s Iraq where Macblair goes in for the kill, in thrall to George Bush – “Yo! Blair” – and he plots with Alistair Campbell – “Don’t ask me, I just deal in appearances” – to mislead Parliament and invade the country to destroy Saddam Hussein – “If it were done; when ’tis done, ’twas well it were done quickly”.
That line, shamelessly stolen from ‘Macbeth’, got a great laugh for its sheer chutzpah, as did a lot of other bits that we recognised. But it wasn’t just The Bard’s own words – a lot of lines from ‘Macblair’ were rendered in Shakespearean blank verse, producing a hilarious mash-up of Elizabethan and contemporary cultures.
Some sections were played as rap, with the actors in baseball caps, hammering out the beat as they made speeches in Parliament or when out electioneering. At other times, the rhythm slowed a little, but the words got more complex, and it sounded almost like passages from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.
So who did all this? Who played this multitude of larger-than-life characters?
Just four actors – though at times it seemed like there were twice that number as they quick-changed costume to give us a kaleidoscope of different roles. The Studio 3 stage is quite small, but they managed to exit and reappear from different sides in a tempo that kept us constantly on the edge of our seats. And larger-than-life they certainly were. We were very close to the stage, as I said above, and James Sanderson loomed menacingly above me as Macbrown, suit tightly buttoned up and managing to sneer in a Scottish accent. He had been a hack at the very start, then in a later scene he was George Bush in his leather flying jacket (you’ve all seen the pictures …), drawling away as a convincing American. In between, he made a brief appearance as the melancholy ghost of David Kelly, the (possibly murdered) WMD weapons expert, in Macblair’s guilt-ridden dreaming.
Lorna Shaw was one of the hacks at the opening, all business-like, staccato speech, hair tied back and dark blue skirt and jacket, but then she donned a black wig and made her posture more clingy, to become Cherie Blair. She was in Macblair’s dream too, a quick cameo in a headscarf and low voice as the mother of an Iraqi soldier killed in the war. Shaw’s acting was perfect, but her Cherie character, as written, was over-cautious and fearful. It had none of the pushiness of the real Cherie Blair nor the steely, murderous ambition of Lady Macbeth.
You can’t have Blair without Alistair Campbell, of course. Matt Morrison portrayed him as a mixture of worldly and world-weary. He advises Macblair to tell people, including Parliament, only what they need to know. Not lying – being ‘creative’. As a hack, Morrison seemed hyper-charged; as Alistair Campbell he managed to make his posture much more languid and relaxed.
Macblair himself was played by Charlie Dupré, who also wrote the piece. The actor is tall and thin, with dark curly hair, intense eyes and a slight, but visible, shaving stubble on his cheeks. Dupré managed to look both macho and boyish at the same time. He gave us a Blair who looked and sounded gripping on the stage, but written as a character who was rather an empty vessel, easily swayed by people like Bush, and frightened of Gordon Brown. The real Blair is surely driven by intense ambition, and appears to genuinely believe himself divinely appointed to do great things – this one seemed to simply be dazzled by the promise of the three hacks/witches.
But that might not be the point. The point it that ‘Macblair’ is bloody good theatre –
vividly drawn characters, constantly moving staging and haunting music, and some shameless theft from the Bard. I’ll forgive anyone who gets Cherie Blair to take Lady Macbeth’s line, as she fretted over the outcome in Iraq, and muse – “Who would have thought the country had so much blood in it”