Review: Macbeth @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Filter’s Macbeth is not one for the traditionalists. Making use of innovative lighting, experimental live music and a liberal rehashing of the original text, but still attempting to address conventional themes through recognisable characters, it is a play caught in limbo, aggressively modernised on the surface yet somehow recognisable underneath. And herein lies its failing; this dichotomy never crystallises into a cohesive whole and, as a result, there is a distinct lack of clarity to the piece. It is tempting to compare this Shakespeare adaptation to those of contemporary companies Frantic Assembly and Cheek By Jowl, but Filter’s Macbeth is of an entirely different tradition. It is less vivid, eschewing primitive outward emotion in favour of a more contemplative examination of the human condition.

Performed on a starkly empty stage, in the centre of which sits a complex mess of custom-made acoustic, mechanical and electronic musical apparatus, it is a tragedy played out on a sonic landscape, as much as a physical one. An ethereal blend of pops, whirs and whistles, composer Tom Haines’ score is designed to ‘draw the audience into the epicentre of the ‘heat-oppressed brain’, yet ultimately fails through its lack of character; there is nothing relatable about a computerised blip, nothing human about a synthesised ping. This is all performed live on stage by the cast, who cluster around the central knot of wires and keyboards, periodically disentangling themselves to assume a variety of characters downstage. Ferdy Roberts stars as the eponymous Thane of Glamis, whose royal fate is foretold by three witches and whose ambitious lady wife (Poppy Miller) incites him to murder King Duncan (Paul Woodson) and assume his position.

For the play’s central dynamic, there is surprisingly little strength to the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. Miller lacks the drive and gravitas to truly convince the audience as to her murderous aims, and Roberts’ ferocity is somewhat inexplicable in comparison. His debauchery is visceral to the point of hedonism in the banquet scene, but his subsequent frenzy has none of the horror required to truly impact. Elsewhere, although he embodies a refreshing realism, Woodson, who doubles as Malcolm, displays a lack of resolve that goes beyond his character’s self-doubt and borders on the lackadaisical.

In truth, however, in a production so concentrated on the combined impact of innovation and exploration, it is difficult for a conventional acting performance to impress. The production’s focus on live, experimental music detracts from the characters’ believability in both a practical and a theatrical sense; too often are the performers grouped around their instruments, and too frequently is music utilised where words would suffice.

Filter’s ambition is to be appreciated, and their technical proficiency is genuinely impressive, but the basic problem with their production of Macbeth lies in its failure to merge modern and traditional into a single entity.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that marrying Shakespeare’s text to modern experimentation is a difficult and delicate balancing act. Filter, with this unique blend of sound and narrative, tip the scales far too far towards the latter.  Their Macbeth is laudably original, yet fundamentally divorced from the quintessential and undeniably arresting themes of the Bard’s original, and its potency suffers as a result.



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