The HandleBards in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, tonight (26/1/2022) at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THE Scottish Play becomes The Skittish Play when recycled by eco-conscious pedalling enthusiasts The HandleBards in pursuit of daft laughs on their return to York Theatre Royal.
Tragedy takes a hike up the Scottish Highlands, soliloquys lose out to a rising cacophony of noise, and The Porter’s knock-knock interlude vanishes like the secret midnight hags into the dreek mists.
Often cut for being Shakespeare’s one (not-very-funny) comic interlude, as unwelcome as a drunken heckler, presumably this time Macbeth’s bouncer has been axed for being the one character that did not require conversion to comedy.
The HandleBards like to break down barriers, as Emma Sampson’s cast demolishes theatre’s fourth wall from the off when perky Kathryn Perkins, towering Natalie Simone and professional debutante Jenny Smith introduce themselves and who they will be playing. These days, it is called meta-theatre, a form of heightened awareness that a play is indeed all about playing.
Or it could just be that The HandleBards just want to “shake a spear” at all that seriousness that emanates from so many Shakespeare productions.
Macbeth has broad shoulders and can pretty much take anything you throw at it, on stage or screen, although there was one time on a Leeds stage where the lead actor was so hapless that he not only murdered all around him, he murdered Macbeth.
That does not happen here, but Perkins’ Cockernee Artful Dodger Macbeth does tend to play second fiddle to the weird sisters, the Witches pulling Macbeth every witch way, every which way in this all-female production.
If you want punk irreverence, you will find it here, not least in the biker costume designs of Lucy Green that echo the Seventies’ clobber of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, tartan trim and all.
Cycling paraphernalia is omnipresent too, from the bell to signify scene changes to the tyres on the Macbeth’s biker jacket; from the bicycle pedalling that provides the power for scenery to turn around to the honking of a horn to add to the anarchic silliness. Macbeth and co are bikers, not cyclists, as indicated by the HandleBards’ use of handlebars to signify motorbikes and a child’s toy for the sound of a revving engine.
There is abundant comic energy here, indeed an excess of it, that leaves Macbeth’s text struggling for air by comparison with last May’s visit of Romeo & Juliet that had a better balance between HandleBards’ comic mayhem and teen tragedy.
Imagine Eric Morecambe undermining Ernie Wise’s attempts to present one of those “plays what I wrote”, but then overplaying it as clarinet and shruti box drown out Perkins’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. In such a moment, something of the play is lost in choosing to tell it by behaving like Shakespeare’s idiot, full of sound but not fury, signifying what?
Elsewhere, the comic tone works better, as does the editing out of the dull political stuff down in England. Natalie Simone’s Strictly Come Dancing-loving Lady Macbeth is a scream, blessed with the best comic timing; Jenny Smith has bags of clowning physicality; Perkins’s Macbeth is sacrificed to the constant playfulness.
You will enjoy women sending up Macbeth and MacDuff comparing their manliness; the Witches’ percussive musicianship, singing and later rapping; the impatience at MacDuff taking forever to comprehend the news that his wife and bairns are all dead (spoiler alert); the use of red confetti to signify blood; the dagger attached to Macbeth’s head to “see before me”.
Look out too for two Coronavirus references, two well-placed insertions of topical comedy where, elsewhere, Sampson’s cast sometimes pushes too hard for lightweight laughs at the cost of storytelling.
Sampson had decided to not replicate the use of baked beans and tomato soup for blood from the original HandleBards’ Macbeth, preferring the less messy confetti, but there are moments where the production could be cleaner, less prone to over-excitement, less busy.
This Macbeth is neither ‘bloody’ funny, nor dead funny, in a hammy Hammer horror style; more of a Five Go Camp Acting jaunty jape instead.
Coming next will be a tour of Twelfth Night; dates are yet to be announced.
Review by Charles Hutchinson