• Amy Toledano

Macbeth presented by Big Telly Theatre

What Is It?

An immersive virtual reboot of the Shakespeare classic, directed by Zoe Seaton. This is Seaton’s fourth digital production since lockdown—just in time for spooky season.

What Is It About?

Witches! Ambition! Power! A cautionary tale about fate and self-fulfilling prophecy, set in a world where reality and illusion are hard to tell apart, and inept rulers fall short of the duties of their stations. Imagine such a world!

How Did It Make Me Feel?

“Oh, and finally, please draw the curtains, dim the lights and lock the door.”

These instructions on the Zoom link email set a tone, and it shines a light on how experiential all digital theatre is. It really does start at the point of opening your inbox. Woe betide you should Zoom not want to start up properly.

We are instructed to keep cameras on and minimise thumbnails, though I do sometimes check what’s going on. It’s a lot! Especially for the multi-rolling actors, as some of the roles have swift transitions. Dharmesh Patel’s appearances as Banquo, then a witch, are charismatic, and amusing on a certain level. It’s nice to think that Banquo gets to torment Macbeth as an apparition later on. Dennis Herdman’s Macbeth deteriorates in a satisfying way—how could it not be, when “is this a dagger I see before me?” is addressed to you, personally, in a Zoom call? Herdman achieves a sensitive complexity with the character that shines through, even while navigating all the overlays and technical considerations demanded of the staging.

Extreme close-ups, rhythmic sound design, sometimes strangely-scaled backdrops, and the use of filter effects (a lot of B&W, sometimes red) combine to give the production the feel of German Expressionist horror—think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—which is all too apt, as that too was a genre that experimented with a new visual format of storytelling in a time of necessity and change.

This sometimes inspires humour rather than terror, but it’s all part of the game. The German Expressionists didn’t have to do it with every member of the cast and crew sitting in a different geographical location. The production is aware of the limitations of the format, and so is the audience. After all, we are part of the call, and therefore the show. This unspoken accord means that there is space for some fun moments without jarring the tone, for example at Macbeth’s coronation, where we are encouraged to wave at his passing carriage, and he waves back. There are more delightful surprises like this, which I won’t spoil for you. The real standout scene is when the witches-as-stage managers show Macbeth the apparitions that will prove to be his downfall, in an empty theatre. It’s a meta nod at the people who look after the buildings, and the people who make productions such as this possible. I am quite certain that Zoom user ‘WIZARD’ was technical stage manager Sinead Owens, a username well lived up to!

The tech and production team deserves a round of applause. There were no technical malfunctions that I noticed on the night I saw it. Readers will note that this is deeply impressive, considering the capricious nature of Zoom. Hopefully the rising prevalence of digital theatre means people in these roles receive more of the recognition and acknowledgment they’ve always deserved for their hard work.

Beyond its notorious curse, Macbeth is a play that frequently tends to hit some awkward and unwieldy notes when staged live. This is mostly a Shakespeare-the-poet overruling Shakespeare-the-playwright thing. Nobody’s perfect. But perhaps he really was far ahead of his time, because the story seems to flow better in this format, without much being cut.

Anything Else?

I believe the experience is enhanced with good quality headphones, if you have them, as Garth McConaghie’s sound design adds a lot of atmosphere and it would be a shame to miss out.

I never fail to be impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness shown in digital theatre. It took me a short while to warm up to the idea, on the basis of sorely missing in-person, live theatre. But I’ve more than caught up by now. These are the times we’re in, and productions such as these are a reminder that the show does go on, and indeed would probably not have happened in this way if necessity hadn’t forced innovation.

Arden x

Macbeth will be playing live on Zoom until 31st October.

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