It's a fancy dress Hallowe'en party that Banquo's ghost interrupts in Mark Rylance's Phoebus Cart production of Macbeth at Greenwich. With an air of "Ee, I'm a right caution," Jane Horrocks's redoubtably Northern Lady Macbeth turns up as a nun, and among the guests there's a witch's cat and a skeleton. If you were to arrive late, you might surmise that Rylance's Macbeth had chosen to attend these festivities kitted out as a Caucasian Mahatma Gandhi. The shaven head, the sandals, glasses and Indian wrap are no costume, though, for in this version of Shakespeare's tragedy it is a Hare Krishna community rather than Scotland over which the usurping Macbeth gains murderous control.
What collective noun would you use for the plethora of Macbeth productions covering the country at present? Given the jinxed tradition of this play, a "misfortune" of Macbeths would probably fit the bill. Rylance claims that the jinx dates from the time scholars and producers began to cut disputed passages involving Hecate, the Queen of the Underworld, and that, by restoring these, it can be lifted. Watching the production, though, you can't help feeling that a director really bent on exorcising this play of its bad luck would think twice about the wisdom of transplanting it to the ingrown world of cults.
King Duncan (Sandeep Sharma) is reconceived as the community's Eastern guru, who presents Lady M with a bunch of bananas when he arrives for his famously curtailed stay. With excerpts from reports on, say, the Nine O'Clock Services scandal and the Waco siege, the programme includes much information about the dangerous appeal of cults. It also states that "we do not intend to condemn alternative religious communities". The result is that you feel the play has been shifted to territory whose dramatic potential has been left frustratingly untapped.
If Duncan is, as Shakespeare and Macbeth seem to think, an example of saintliness in a ruler, is he supposed to be presiding here over some special unclaustrophobic, non-brainwashing outfit? But then what would be the point of presenting it as a cult in the first place? (There have been productions that have hinted that the murdered monarch is not all he's cracked up to be.) The snag about taking a negative view of this Krishna-style group is that Macbeth's effect on it would then be curiously beneficial, his tyranny converting a credulous, submissive community into a politicised people warily on the alert for spies and informers. Then again, one big drawback of gurus under siege is that they tend to demand the group suicide of their followers. It can be said in Macbeth's favour that at least he dies in a state of horrible isolation.
The supernatural side of things is no easier to sort out. If the aim of this production is to placate Hecate, I somehow feel that turning her into Tim Barlow's drag lollipop lady is not going to do the trick. As for the witches and the episode set in "The Pit of Acheron" (signposted in dripping horror-movie lettering), I've been given more powerful intimations of unearthly evil from rides on a ghost train.
Rylance remains a wonderfully compelling performer. He delivers Macbeth's speeches in an American accent, almost Method-like, never making them for poetic effect but making them seem like the natural, at times almost inadvertent, discourse of the mild-mannered, sweet-faced, haunted-eyed villain, who - forever nervously taking off and replacing his glasses - confronts us here. As an unstable cult-member you can believe in him utterly, as an intrepid warrior rather less so.
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