Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Dir. Marc Beeby. Perf. Neil Dudgeon, Emma Fielding, Sean Dooley. BBC Radio 3, 17 May 2015. BBCiPlayer

This was a highly momentous revival insofar as it made me understand just how intense the experience of listening to Shakespeare can be. It's not just a matter of hearing the words; they have to be considered in relation to other aspects of the sonic experience - music, sound-effects and (most importantly in this revival) space.

By space, I am specifically referring to the placement of the actors in relation to the microphone. In Marc Beeby's production the Macbeths (Neil Dudgeon, Emma Fielding) delivered their lines in quiet, confidential tones, as if they were addressing listeners directly rather than exchanging dialog with their fellow-characters. This proved an effective means for indicating the play's psychological aspects: the Weird Sisters (Jane Slavin, Carl Prekopp, and Ayesha Antoine) might not exist at all, except as projections of Macbeth's and Banquo's (Sean Dooley's) minds. For Macbeth they are uncomfortably real, like the dagger or Banquo's Ghost, but they did not seem to have such a powerful effect on others, especially Banquo.

The Macbeths began this production as ordinary members of Duncan's (David Hounslow's) court - eager and willing to serve the King in any way they could. Once the prospect of the ultimate prize appeared in front of them, their characters changed; but that process was a difficult one. When calling on the spirits to unsex her, Lady Macbeth spoke tremulously, almost as if she was scared of what might happen in the future. Likewise her husband seemed particularly reluctant to murder Duncan, or to accept the consequences of that murder. Neither of them seemed suitable for the roles they cast themselves in; and hence hastened their own social and mental decline. They spoke their soliloquies in quiet tones, as if addressing no one in particular but rather trying (and failing) to make sense of powerful psychological impulses within themselves.

The sonic landscape of this production conjured up an unearthly world, one dedicated to the survival of the fittest. In this environment neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth had much chance of survival. Timothy X. Atack's score was full of metallic sounds, suggesting perpetual sword-fights; at the production's end, the crowning fight between Macbeth and Macduff (Paul Hilton) took place with these sounds in the background, then stopped abruptly as Macbeth finally met his appointed end. The aggressive, dog-eat-dog world had suddenly evaporated: Scotland could now be restored to some kind of order with Malcolm's (Alex Waldmann's) succession.

Colin Guthrie's sound-design was full of unearthly noises - the cries of predatory animals, the whistle of the wind, and a series of whooshes accompanying the witches' entrance. Sonically speaking they were uncomfortably close to the gasps of trepidation uttered by Macbeth as he prepared to commit murder and faced the consequences afterwards. This strategy emphasized the link between his deteriorating state of mind and the destruction of the kingdom of Scotland: microcosm and macrocosm were as one.

This revival proved such an intense experience that I had to keep taking breaks, so as to make sense of what I was hearing. Perhaps more than ever director Beeby underlined the inherent complexities of Shakespeare's tragedy, despite its apparently straightforward plot.