Summer of Shakespeare – Macbeth and The Tempest

Summer of ShakespeareMy second and third Summer of Shakespeare instalments took place on the Southbank at the home of the Bard himself, the Globe theatre. It is one of my favourite places in London, with its beauty created by authenticity. The current building is a reconstruction of the original theatre, built approximately 250 yards from the Elizabethan site.

Now for those of you who are unaware of the history of the theatre, it was originally built in 1599 on the banks of the Thames by the playing company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of whom was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself was an actor and I think that’s one of the main reasons as to why his plays have stood the test of time. Though his words and phrasings absolutely exquisite, the intonation and meaning behind them can be fluid, giving the actors power over their interpretation.

And so please do enter the magic of the Globe – the original home of Shakespearian interpretation and the theatrical elite. There is something so electric about being part of the Globe audience, surrounded by the wooden structure, and watching an incredibly high calibre of actors bring to life the beautiful words of Shakespeare (and with groundling (standing) tickets set at only £5, there is absolutely no reason not to indulge!)

In the course of a week I was lucky enough to visit this majesty of British theatre twice. I went to two Sunday evening performances of plays I had studied and/or read but never seen performed live – Macbeth and The Tempest. One is a dark tragedy of betrayal, greed and retribution and the other a magical surrealist exploration of colonialism.

The story of the Macbeth, set on a path on destruction, led by greed and magic, is rich in content, ideas and action. As Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, it is also by far his most fast-paced. I was a little bit worried how such a dark play would work in such a light space (even starting at 6.30pm, London was still shining bright!) but I needn’t have worried whatsoever.

Traditional in feel and presentation, with Renaissance dress and a simple wooden structure set as the backdrop, this adaptation starring Joseph Millson (Macbeth), Samantha Spiro (Lady Macbeth) and Billy Boyd (Banquo) is unpretentious yet packs a punch in its performance of the Scottish play.

I had inadvertently seen Millson in a previous Macbeth adaptation – he played the Banquo to James McAvoy’s Macbeth in the BBC’s ingenious ShakespeaRe-Told version (absolutely worth a watch). He took to the title role perfectly and played the captain- turned-murderer-turned-King with brilliance. He drew humour out of the unexpected and yet created a brilliantly on-edge mania as events unfolded. His chemistry with Spiro’s Lady was passionate and complex. Spiro certainly captivated the strength of Lady Macbeth, delivering the baby-dashing speech with spine-tingling courage of conviction.

I loved the interpretation combining mirth and murder and yet I wasn’t as emotionally connected to the horror that the Macbeth’s greed creates as I was expecting (which might say something about me!). The scene where Banquo’s ghost haunts Macbeth at the feast for example slanted more towards laughter created by mania than an exercise in the exposure of Macbeth to his actions. All told Eve Best’s Macbeth is superbly acted and delivers a fresh take on the famous Scottish play and with tickets still available, make sure you catch this spectacle of Shakespeare!

[Tickets for Macbeth are still available here]

The Tempest
The Tempest has always felt like a bit of a mismatch play to me with so much going on – usurpations, magic, love, colonialism, revenge, etc., concluding with Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre delivered through the voice of Prospero. And yet on the discovery that Colin Morgan (BBC’s own Merlin) was cast as Ariel in the new Globe adaptation, I immediately booked tickets for a show I had not particularly enjoyed studying at AS Level.

So with trepidation (and little expectation) but hope that some enjoyment might be had, I settled in to watch The Tempest live for the first time.

And I was almost converted! Though the play is still jam packed and I am not the biggest fan of Miranda’s character (I famously dismissed her as a drip in my AS English class), it is transformed when performed, improved a thousand times over. There was humour abounding, in the words, the dancing and the songs. And though set on a magical isle, the staging at the Globe was surprisingly sparse but instead of hindering the performance, this gave room for the excellent cast to work their own magic.

Roger Allam played a brilliant Prospero, authoritative and vengeful (though not quite tyrannical enough for my liking), and his relationship with Jessie Buckley’s Miranda was expertly managed. The developing relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand and the fatherly inference was expertly explored by Allam, whose expressionism is perfect for both the Globe and Shakespeare. Colin Morgan’s Ariel was subtly played, with an ethereal charm and athleticism. Swinging from pillar to post, his characterisation of Prospero’s spiritual slave oozed believable otherworldliness which is absolutely necessary in order to ensnare the audience’s faith in the world the stage is supposed to represent.

But the star of the show was without a doubt James Garnon’s Caliban. His physicality of this demonic ape-like creature was superb and his interaction with both cast members and audience were played to perfection. He used the stage and the Globe to his advantage, adding the surroundings to his character with humorous effect – spitting water at the audience, for example, or stopping his speech to transform the passing aeroplanes as strange birds of the isle. I absolutely loved watching him, even when the focus wasn’t set on Caliban Garnon still lived and breathed the part and was captivating to watch.

Jeremy Herrin’s The Tempest certainly gave the words of the play freedom and by marrying this with fantastic actors created a fun, enjoyable evening at the Globe. The Tempest may have even bumped up a couple of places in my Shakespeare rankings!

Up next
Othello at The National


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