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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Directed by Robert Hastie and featuring Globe Director Michelle Terry and Paul Ready, this inaugurates Terry’s first Winter season. Peter McKintosh’s set with the wooden stage’s mirrored doors is otherwise bare but for the lowering, snuffing and raising of candles (Paul Russell’s domain). Laura Moody’s a cappella trio meld her music with surround-whispering, at one with the Weird. Fight Directors Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown stage thrilling near-misses where victims nearly turn tables on murderers.


It can seem we’re too steeped in Macbeths already this year, bleached or bloody in the National or RSC productions. So Michelle Terry’s first winter season – shifting Macbeth out of a comfort killing zone in the open Globe, and into Wanamaker candlelight – was always going to feel different.


We’re in the world of the nocturnal. ‘I limn’d this night piece and it was my best’ as Webster’s White Devil staged last year has it. Macbeth’s share of night is vast, and when not actual, anticipated: ‘the crow/Makes wing to the rooky wood’ and Macbeth’s final speech with its ‘Out, out brief candle!’ might cue the Wanamaker.


Peter McKintosh’s set with the stage’s mirrored doors is otherwise bare but for lowering, snuffing, raising of candelabras (Paul Russell’s domain) which perform more than in any production I’ve seen here. But the theatre’s expanded: round the wooden O of the Wanamaker shell with external rappings and malign susurrations, hooded figures near-invisible on stage, vaporising in masks, candled cheek-by-jowl with audience at doorways. Hell is murky, but despite some loss of definition in one or two scenes the effect’s witchier than any high-tech effort, ideal for Macbeth.


It’s sonically stark too. Laura Moody’s a cappella trio melds her music with surround-whispering, at one with the Weird. When invisible murderers rise they assume the black-suited stance of Sisters. A choreographed logic informs everything.


This production with Terry and husband Paul Ready in the title roles directed by Robert Hastie capitalises on the familial and intimacy curdled. Indeed one of Macbeth’s exhortations ‘bring forth boy children only’ hints at a daughter’s death; that Lady Macbeth’s constitutionally better-suited to nurturing sons.


More even than that though is the satisfaction of a near-full text – after Thomas Middleton seemingly cut it, just as he expanded Measure for Measure by a couple of scenes. If occasional lines like Duncan’s ‘silver skin laced with his golden blood’ are surprisingly excised, Banquo (Philip Cumbus, also the bespectacled Doctor) enjoys a fuller role, in his exhortations to his friend of everything you’d wish to say yourself (not least let fate take care of it), sharing fears with son Fleance (Kirsty Rider in several roles). Cumbus is substantial, here more than in any recent production the sane, alert witness. It’s right he returns as the Doctor.


The day’s foul certainly. In a tenebrous chill the Weird Sisters cowl with musicians to provoke a liminal menace that palls over the whole production. It’s immersive as rappings threaten from outside and whispers through gloom resolve themselves into black-hooded speeches.


But it’s lucid too. Marc Elliott’s Ross doubles as the wounded sergeant in an economical stretch of shadows over inevitably diminutive reports of alarum and strife. It’s later that Fight Directors Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown stage thrilling near-misses where victims almost turn tables on murderers.


Elliott and the even more beautifully-voiced Jospeh Marcell as Duncan seal a martial authority; it’s only with the blasted heath that Ready and Cumbus can stretch their vowels and peer into the seeds of time. They couldn’t predict Marcell’s return as the Porter, an ebullient audience-grabbing show-stopper. And finally as a limping harbinger of doom to a Fife castle.


This clarity balances Macbeth with Banquo, and Macbeth with Terry’s Lady Macbeth, receiving her husband’s letter. She hesitates, inhabiting an un-nuanced contemporary voice. It’s deceptive. Conversational ascends to stratospheric as Terry moves from hollowed-out ambition as compensation (if she’s indeed lost a child) to sudden sense of what that ambition means. She only misses the startled ‘thou art mad to say it’ to Kirsty Rider in her smaller role announcing the king’s arrival, whereas Terry should be jumped out of her skin with just who the king is at that moment.


Intimate traffic between Ready and Terry provides thrilling confrontation. There’s a give-and-take in the embrace, a passion and impatience born of love and later exasperation – with a potential back-story. Terry’s easy hostess gives place to seething exhortation to Ready’s more ruminant way with daggers. Ready’s can’t vault his own ambition. He’s overheard himself, frightened to be the serpent under it, but as Terry’s Lady Macbeth makes clear, then why burden her with confidences?


This thoroughness, sometimes skipped, allows Ready’s intellectual Brutus-like Macbeth to overweigh conscience with glacial slowness. His clarity’s exemplary. You may savour in him more the scholar than the soldier, not quite believe reports of hewing right and left. More a commander in chief, geekily puzzling prophesies which by the end – he realizes in near-collapse – riddle him.


That’s why Ready’s Macbeth is so convincingly overborne by terror. Bellona’s bridegroom lapped in proof would be better-armoured against passages of remorse or hasty murders. Terry’s Queen for all the snatching of this one nearest way – something Hastie brings out, Duncan’s stop-over a once-in-a-deathtime chance – finds the wrong things blocked up.


It’s the crossover of roles after the banqueting scene that convinces you: a couple whose shared folly lie beyond their natures, or de-naturing. It’s the only scene with props – where Cumbus’ bare-chested bloodiness pops up from under the table, cellarage doing service as ditch. So it assumes a grand peripeteia. The breakdown of Macbeth is something Terry summons her last strength to get through: the most disastrous PR feast on stage.


Her collapse after presages the sleep-walking scene where again Terry’s characteristically rapid delivery, almost matter-of-fact startles upwards to realise how far ahead Macbeth is, dispatching Banquo beyond her plotting then that tripped-off ‘the Thane of Fife had a wife’, beyond her ken. Her last ‘to bed’ rises to a sudden shriek; you wonder if she’s overheard her overhearers, Cumbus and Rider.


It links more seamlessly to that other castle. Rider’s Lady Macduff and Son Philippine Velge (also Donalbain) entertain with a wooden sword till lurking shadows prove steelier and Lady Macduff nearly dispatches one.


If Cumbus is witness then Anna-Maria Nabirye proves avenger in a fierce Macduff whose cardinal sin is to desert family in fright, something Nabirye brings out in stunned silence as Elliott’s Ross falters with news. Then a ferocious energy. Kit Young’s callow Malcolm makes no attempt to appear either chilly or over-calculating, but grows cannily into the barren strategist he proves, first with Nabiyre and Elliott then with his leafy screens from the gallery. Catrin Aaron’s Lennox, Marcell’s Seaton and Velge grasp more action and enlarge our sense of the space – the first time you feel there’s daylight with a coronation looming. That though is snuffed at the end. More than once we’re in blackout.


This production outclasses recent ones. Another suggests itself – the very different 2013 Manchester International Festival co-directed by Kenneth Branagh. Alex Kingston’s thrilling Lady Macbeth is the classic standard for our times, consorting with Sisters; which more than leaves room for Terry who shows just what might be done outside that. Terry’s different too to Anne-Marie Duff’s rescue job on the NT panorama earlier this year. The Manchester production’s Ray Fearon as Macduff is the finest I’ve seen; Nabirye certainly doesn’t shrink by comparison.


There’s a familial feel too, Hastie and Terry building on the ensemble sense introduced earlier this Globe season. Such company values, if so it proves, is what made for those titanic RSC and NT productions from the 1960s-80s. We need it back.


And this remains the darkest Macbeth of recent memory, as well as the most faithful. Evaporating spirits at your elbow, it’s not just what M. R. James might conjure. It chills like the witches James I and perhaps Shakespeare imagined were real. The one to see.