The Northern Irish accent lends itself well to Shakespeare's most visceral tragedy, and Stuart Graham excels as the murderous king
How does somebody become a serial killer? That's effectively what Macbeth is, as one murder begets another, and he seeks to ruthlessly eliminate any possible obstacle to his lust for power, or threat to his personal safety. 'Blood will have blood', as Shakespeare puts it: by the end of the action the stage is metaphorically, if not literally, awash with the stuff.
How does this all happen? What creates the dagger-happy monster? Shakespeare plants the motivation early, in the crucial episode where an initially reluctant Macbeth is goaded by his wife, who questions his manhood, to start eliminating rivals to the throne of Scotland.
It's a difficult scene, and doesn't quite come off the page in this new production of 'the Scottish play' at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, as part of the 50th Belfast Festival at Queen's. It’s crucial an audience viscerally registers the insidious grip that Lady Macbeth has upon her husband, the evil which infects her, and the poisonous injunction to murder she injects into his system.
Those fatal insinuations are served up somewhat cold and undercooked by the Lady Macbeth of Andrea Irvine, making it unclear why Macbeth is so fatally in her thrall, so easily swayed and influenced. I’m not sure I would personally have boiled an egg for her afterwards.
In the event, however, it barely matters, for in the central performance of Stuart Graham this Lyric staging has its true raison d’être. It’s an assumption of genuine stature, which alone makes the production worth seeing. Graham’s impact in the part, like all effective Shakespearian performances, is rooted in an intimate understanding of the text, and an ability to clarify its meaning to a contemporary audience.
And here’s a thing: director Lynne Parker’s decision to let the actors speak in their native Northern Irish accents undoubtedly assists that process of clarification. Those flint-sharp vowels, the curdled consonants and guttural inflections – they seem, somehow, particularly fit for purpose in a play so full of blunt edges and rawly physical confrontations.
But that’s just part of the story. Graham’s Macbeth is also elegantly parsed and rhythmical, metrically parcelled out to reflect precisely the movements of his inner being. When you don’t understand the exact meaning of what his character is saying, Graham somehow makes you feel it: the emotional trajectory of his descent to bloody madness is transparently evident, and constantly gripping.
Gesturally, this is also an eloquent production. Parker has clearly worked hard with the entire cast, carefully measuring the extent to which manual and facial movements can serve to emphasise and unravel textual meaning. Her solutions are invariably economical and intelligent, and make a significant contribution to elucidating the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations.
The fluidity of Parker’s story-telling is further enhanced by the evocative and cleverly functional set design by Diana Ennis. It’s a split-stage solution, the upper area a gravelly, al fresco plateau, with stylised battlements, hung from the flies, glowering over the protagonists.
Downstage, at ground level, a rectangular area, with stools and dining table, defines the castle’s domestic interior, enabling rapid cross-cutting between scenes, and swifter access for the actors from one environment to the other.
Sound and music are skilfully deployed by Denis Clohessy to intensify the action, with eerie underscoring at crucial junctures, discreet amplification (with added voice-echo) emphasising the surreality of scenes involving the ‘weird sisters’, and crashing storm eruptions.
There’s fine ensemble work from the supporting actors, among whom the Banquo of Michael Condron deserves a special mention, not least for the industrial quantities of stage-blood that he’s smeared in for the Ghost scenes, which are of snuff-movie proportions.
Ultimately, though, it’s Graham’s haunted, wracked portrayal of the central character that rightly dominates this new Macbeth staging. As foul deed begets fouler, and the slaughter rages, Graham somehow manages to cling to vestiges of Macbeth’s underlying humanity, the part of him that initially resisted his wife’s entreaties to get down and seriously dirty with his political opponents.
He can’t resist, however, and that’s his tragedy. That in other circumstances he might have done is the play’s enduring sadness: Graham’s performance causes it to resonate in the mind long afterwards, when the curtain finally drops to drape the bloody carnage in uncomfortable darkness.
Macbeth runs in the Lyric Theatre until November 24.