I feel as if I should preface this review/blog with a disclaimer: I am neither a Shakespearean expert (at least no more than anyone with an undergraduate degree in English Literature is) nor a ‘purist’. Shakespeares’s Globe’s Wonder season, Emma Rice’s first as the theatre’s artisitc director, has been the topic of much conversation, both positive and negative, about the way in which it has adapted and presented Shakespeare’s work. Being as this review (and to an extent, this reviewer) is primarly concerned with the performance’s Gothic aspects, I won’t be passing judgment on the adaptation in that respect. Disclaimer number two: the play is still running (until October) and, all things aside, as I enjoyed it I wouldn’t like to spoil it. Also, despite having my notebook open in my lap the whole time, I completely forgot to take any notes for the majority of the performance.
We’ve talked a lot about witches this term- largely thanks to the release of Robert Egger’s film The Witch earlier this year, which the Guardian called ‘a 90-minute exercise in anxiety’. As this blog has mentioned before, discussion at this year’s Gothic Reading Group sessions returned frequently to the same question: ‘What is there for us still to be afraid of?’ Texts like Egger’s The Witch tap into an anxiety a world away from the sensory overload horror that hits the cinemas every October and create a fear that’s less ‘jumped so hard in the cinema I spilled this obscenely large coke all over my jeans’ and more ‘lying awake at night flinching at every creak, trying not to cry.’ (Not that I didn’t jump, but as has been previously established, I’m a real easy scare).
The Witches three have taken many forms over the years. How does one make a witch visibly a witch, after all, without making them little more than a cheap Halloween costume? How do you style her, move her and stage her in a way that unsettles a modern audience?
There are an ambiguous number of witches in Khan’s Macbeth. And by that I mean there are four. But those four are also three. The four female actors (whom we identify as witches by their costuming) function as something of a chorus, donning black veils for moments of prophecy. They rise from a pile of bodies and, as Macbeth and Banquo approach them for the first time, they come together to form the triptych from a series of grotesque and disjointed limbs that shift to represent each ‘sister’.
From a Gothic perspective, this version of Macbeth’s witches works wonderfully; uncanny and unsettling, they are at once human and inhuman. The actresses are not the witches, but appear as a part of them; a physical extension that draws on the audience’s (both contemporary and modern) anxieties about femininity. Humour aside, it did draw my mind once again to Outlander, where Claire’s modern attitudes and medicinal knowledge cast her frequently as a witch. But that’s a blog post for another time.
The witch-women physcially move the play forward, crowning Macbeth and conjouring on stage the ghost of Banquo. I found myself particualrly impressed with the staging of this set piece, which was genuinely one of the most effective I’ve seen. Khan manages, through very simple means I will not spoil, to create something chilling, nightmarish and even monstrous. My only criticism is that I would have relished more. But there is another ghost in Khan’s Macbeth. And he is very cute.
A small boy appears throughout the play; he has no lines but is evidently the child of the Macbeths. Khan’s is not the first adapation to explore Lady Macbeth’s lines in Act I, Scene VII, ‘I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me’, but some reviewers have questioned the decision to include their child. However, so far as I noticed, the boy seeimingly exists only to Lady Macbeth, a blind man and later Macbeth. Perhaps it is the Gothicist in me, but I read the child as the ghost of the child the play implies the Macbeth’s to have lost. The child’s silence and Lady Macbeth’s doting obsession with him added texture to her character and performance, highlighting the anxieties and anguish that form her motivations.
Overall, Khan’s Macbeth sat well with me even if the witches did steal the show, with Banquo in a close second. During our perfomance, he stole a lemonade from a school boy in the groundlings, wandered off stage with it, then came out for his next scene and handed the kid an empty cup. Khan’s is a diverse and predominently well chosen cast. (Nadia Albina’s Porter, though perhaps not for all, had me in hysterics.)
If you want to see the play for yourself, Macbeth can be found at The Globe until October 1st-
and spare us a fate worse than Banquo.