If ever there was a Shakespeare play perfect for Halloween, then it is surely the ever-popular Macbeth.  With witches, ghosts and plenty of bloodshed, there’s more than enough spookiness to go around, so Big Telly Theatre asks it audience to draw the curtains, dim the lights and lock the door for a very inventive retelling of this Shakespearian tragedy.

As has become the norm during this pandemic, the actors, who have never actually met, take to the virtual stage, using the Zoom platform to bring this murderous tale to life.  There’s a vague intimation that the production is framed around the pandemic, opening with a suspiciously familiar press briefing while the audience is ‘tested’ for exposure to witchcraft, but this notion fades as we get in to Shakespeare’s text.

This heavily abridged version focuses on the key plot points, and succeeds in telling just enough of the story without it becoming overly diminished.  With a cast of only five, three of whom are already heavily multi-rolling it was probably a wise decision to truncate the five acts to a more manageable 75 minutes.

This is an ambitious production, not only bringing together a cast that are spread across the United Kingdom, but employing a range of special effects, and audience interaction, all at the same time.  Zoom’s background feature is used to good effect, but there are also scenes in which the actor’s own home becomes the set.  The audience are instructed to leave their camera on, although the shyest among us can elect to leave it switched off, but for those who do, they may find themselves sitting at a banquet table, or in Box A at the theatre.

For someone who struggles to get Zoom to work for a simple video call, the technological wizardry involved in Macbeth is, frankly, astounding.  It doesn’t always work as planned however, and in these moments, it distracts from the storytelling, but the bravery of this production in forcing itself to be so innovative should be applauded.

In this version of ‘The Scottish Play’ (which seems to lack any hint of Scottishness), Dennis Herdman’s Macbeth comes across as a sort of wheeler dealer character, you half expect him to attempt to sell you a used car at some point in proceedings, only for his bravado to give way to the psychological torment resultant from his crimes against Duncan.

Nicky Harley’s Lady Macbeth is everything you could hope for and more, provocative and fierce whilst entirely captivating.  The remainder of the cast cover a number of roles, but each have a main character, Aonghus Óg McAnally is a convincing Macduff, while Dharmesh Patel excels as Banquo.

Director, Zoe Seaton has fully embraced the horror B-Movie aesthetic, only transitioning from black and white to colour at a key plot milestone.  Multiple camera angles, frighteningly close close-ups and the odd jump scare all add to that sense of the supernatural, most notably, Lady MacDuff’s (Lucia McAnespie) murder scene is quite genuinely terrifying.

From a technological standpoint, Big Telly’s Macbeth is a triumph. The amount of effort required to pull this off as a live performance every time should not be underestimated, and the cast more than pull their weight in order to mount the production nightly.  In terms of storytelling it does lack slightly, and it’s probably the case that so much effort has gone in to the technology, the essence of the piece has been neglected.  That said, for Shakespeare lovers looking for a Halloween treat, the camera trickery may be all that’s needed for a night of enjoyable virtual theatre.

Macbeth starring headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival until 17 October  then transfers online from 21– 31 Oct to Creation Theatre. Tickets can be booked online at www.creationtheatre.co.uk or via the Box office – 01865 766266.

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Macbeth from Big Telly Theatre (Online)
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Macbeth from Big Telly Theatre (Online)
Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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