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London Theatre Reviews: Macbeth and the Cripple of Inishmaan

July 31, 2013 5 comments

Yours truly has recently returned from an excellent and wide-ranging vacation in Great Britain, which will soon occasion the usual travel-writing thoughts that summarize the impressions gleaned from the trip. First, however, some analysis of one of the key activities on the trip: attending highlights of London’s world-class theatre scene. For a nation whose theatres were once shut down and condemned by the Puritan Commonwealth rulers as sinful soon after a golden age of drama in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, London’s stages bounced back quickly and enduringly, and the glut of West End theatres are among the world’s finest, attracting blockbuster Broadway musicals on long-term runs and star-studded prestige productions.

It was more the latter that attracted us on this occasion (maybe I’m just missing something, but I’ve always found Broadway musicals to be inveterately stupid). Like many a culture-fixated visitor to the great British capital, the lure of the late Sam Wanamaker’s vision of a reconstructed Globe Theatre where the works of William Shakespeare could be performed in something approximating their original setting proved irresistible. A production of Macbeth staged there was especially appealing, as Scotland was on the trip itinerary as well and a stage production of the Bard’s great gothic Scottish tragedy was something I had never experienced.

This Macbeth, directed by Eve Best and with the leading-man-ish Joseph Millson as the titular usurping Scots king, is a fascinating contribution to the play’s long and varied performance history. It’s grounded above all in the rough poetry of percussive Celtic music: scored throughout by a small Celtic folk orchestra ensconced on the wooden ramparts of the set, the play opens with the full cast pounding out a resonant drum chorus like a medieval Scottish Stomp, and closes with a rousing curtain-call Highland barn-dance. If Bardologists suspect that such a celebratory coda might diminish the weighty tragic themes of Macbeth, they should also know that Best’s adaptation of the text re-routs many moments (most notably Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s ghost, played by The Lord of the Rings alum Billy Boyd, at a banquet in front of guests) into cathartic comedy.

Releasing the tension with laughs (accomplishing the comic reinventions through wrinkles in timing, line delivery and nuances of non-verbal performance) works surprisingly well, and does not undermine the soliloquies and brooding exchanges about the limits and demands of power and ambition that are Macbeth‘s thematic trademark. The play bleeds out some of its equally-trademarked spookiness, however, in particular in the furiously-choreographed encounter with the witches at the start of Act IV, which relies heavily on indigenous melody and rhythm as well as movement and mime. And, of course, the play’s inherent weaknesses are not ironed out: the fascinating, dominating Lady Macbeth (Samantha Spiro) degenerates too quickly and vanishes off-stage too soon, and the prophecy elements are paid off rather poorly by a C-section cheat and soldiers carrying twigs (little wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien re-wrote them in Rings and had a real army of trees march on a castle).

But this Globe-set Macbeth lets the Bard’s language sing, and the fight choreography is top-notch (especially in the final tussle between Macbeth and Macduff). Opening the play’s big tent to comedy and music is a creative choice entirely in tune with the Jacobean theatrical tendency towards staging an entertaining spectacle for the masses, after all. Even for a play so famous for its witchcraft, violence, and gothic brooding, Macbeth must divert and enrapture as well, and Best’s Globe version accomplishes this much and a bit more.

Another production that was just as accomplished but far different was the Michael Grandage Company’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward Theatre. Penned by rising cinematic writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) in his earlier stage-bound days, The Cripple is one of a trilogy of plays set on the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of his native Ireland. It focuses on the titular physically-handicapped boy, Billy (played by Daniel Radcliffe), an orphan raised by his aunts on Inishmaan in the mid-1930s and mostly derided by its local population, including the meddling gossip-monger, a tough boatsman whose wife died of tuberculosis, and the redheaded hellcat girl whom Billy secretly loves. He sees a potential ride off the harsh little island in the form of a documentary being shot by a Hollywood crew on neighbouring Inishmore, Man of Aran.

McDonagh’s facility with language and humour is undeniable, and is on full scabrous display in The Cripple of Inishmaan. His characters abuse each other in detailed, hilarious terms, and a running joke about how Ireland can’t be so bad if people come from elsewhere to live there pays off with an absurd punchline that scored a massive anticipatory laugh off of the Noel Coward Theatre audience. McDonagh is a master of writing a sort of inverted reductio ad absurdum joke, wherein his characters talk through a simple concept (like, say, looking at a cow), drawing out every possible angle on it in humourous ways until our assumptions about it are wholly deconstructed.

McDonagh’s play layers in pathos and shock on top of the observant, devilish humour, as his films likewise do. Billy suffers a harrowing beating, and soliloquies an apparent regretful speech about his homeland and those he misses while coughing his life away in a spartan rented room. McDonagh complicates the pathos, though, by setting it in a self-reflexive fictional frame: Billy’s consumption “death” scene is revealed to be a failed Hollywood screen test, and he laughs at the lines of sentimental nostalgia for rural Ireland written for him to act out. In truth, although McDonagh locates great reserves of good humour and vivacious linguistic invention in his Aran Islands characters, he makes no bones about the deprivation and isolation of their lives, which Billy feels all too keenly.

Playing an orphan grabbing firm hold of the chance of escape from a mundane existence, the erstwhile Harry Potter is on familiar ground. I vacillate on Radcliffe’s value as a thespian, and under the unforgiving glare of the stage lights his Cripple Billy feels more like a mere professional exercise than a fully-formed person. Radcliffe puts such exquisite work into his nuanced physical deformity and Irish accent that he sometimes forgets to show us the sympathetic human behind those elements that McDonagh clearly has written. Freed up to a be borderline sociopathic libertine, Sarah Greene is much more fun as Billy’s foil (and object of affection) Helen, and the rest of the cast does good work too. As brilliant as the writing is, though, The Cripple of Inishmaan falls just barely short of the heights reached by McDonagh’s films, and one can’t help but point to the young, talented, but still inconsistent actor playing his protagonist as a possible cause. Radcliffe, despite his best efforts, may be the one who cripples The Cripple.

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Categories: Reviews, Theatre