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dennis herdman as macbeth

REVIEW: Zoe Seaton’s Macbeth is a surreal but innovative piece of theatre

To describe Big Telly Theatre Company founder Zoe Seaton’s take on Macbeth as innovative and modern would be the understatement of the year.

We are living in profoundly strange times, as the coronavirus pandemic has made theatre a very strange and very different medium.

The fact that I could watch Macbeth on Zoom at all is a credit to the innovative and creative use of the technology by director Seaton.

But it is very weird and there’s just no getting away from the weirdness of it.

You’re sat on your laptop in bed or on the sofa, watching actors who are all in their own bedrooms, performing Shakespeare, maknig it an incredibly surreal set up, and there’s no escaping the fact that it’s not normal.

The problem that a lesser production might have faced is that it could come across as just actors emphatically reading lines against green screen sets, devoid of any connection or atmosphere.

But this isn’t Seaton’s first rodeo.

It’s her fifth play in fact, since lockdown started and it shows.

Because what Macbeth does that makes it sing is it leans into the strange, surreal nature of the whole thing, with several brilliantly modern twists.

Without spoiling anything, the resulting piece is a mix of classic Macbeth and modern detours that is absolutely bizarre but in the best way possible.

It also does well to position itself as having the technology be possessed by witches and feel a little bit off, giving the whole production a deliberately glitchy feel that smartly covers over any actual technological issues inherent with five actors in completely different locations all bouncing off each other on Zoom.

Sharp, distorted camera changes, intermittent sound shifts, and other techniques work to disguise any issues that may or may not have arisen.

Is the fact that the actor’s voice at times slightly out of sync with his lips a deliberate trick, or is his Zoom slightly lagging?

Was one actor needing to change his green screen effect more than once pre-planned or just a mishap?

At one point one of the five cast members drops off Zoom entirely for about five minutes during a point in the play where they aren’t needed, in what may have been a real technical issue or a prepared plan to throw the audience off.

It’s a masterstroke from Seaton, who recognises that Macbeth is the perfect play to use to manipulate the audience’s sense of perception and the fusion of technology and old-school Shakespeare feels intricately woven.

It helps that the acting is strong across the board, with Dennis Herdman taking on the titular role with a brilliantly pitched slow descent into madness that shows he’s capable of carrying a show.

All three witches playing multiple roles works a treat too, and all three give very strong performances, particularly in the moments when the show veers away from traditional Shakespearean fare and into the more absurdist elements.

But the scene-stealing Nicky Harley is probably the pick of the lot, her Lady Macbeth a terrific take on the character who manages to shine in every interaction with other characters.

Macbeth on Zoom is a concept that can only work if you play up the Zoom aspects, and luckily, that’s exactly what Seaton has done.

It’s a strange, surreal, at times almost fever dream production, but it’s all the better for it.

And it’s impossible to divorce this piece from the context it lives in. As an experiment, it’s a fascinating, brilliantly executed one.

But it’s also the only way to do this now and speaking to Herdman before the production, he was grateful for the opportunity to do theatre at all.

This kind of theatre is in its infancy, with concepts having to be tried and tested and fleshed out as they go, and given that six months ago, people were just learning what Zoom was, the sheer level of innovation required to even make this production exist is remarkable and has to be applauded.

As a production, I really enjoyed Zoe Seaton’s Macbeth, but I appreciate its existence and what it means for an industry that is struggling right now even more.

Macbeth runs on Zoom at Belfast International Arts Festival from 14 to 17 October, with tickets available here and then through Creation Theatre from 21 to 31 October, with tickets available here.

Featured image credit: Big Telly Theatre Company

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