Saturday, 24 September 2022


By Flabbergast Theatre
The Old Market, Hove, Thurs 15th Sept

I’d found my seat and sat in it before I realised the performers were already on stage. Acting out, it would seem, a scene from Bedlam. Everyone having some psychotic episode of their own, oblivious to those around them, switching arbitrarily from one extreme mental state to another. This was doubtless intended to establish the dark mood, and did.

They performed in identical non-costumes with minimal props, and no staging save for the drums and gongs the company played themselves. ‘Performers’ works better than ‘actors’ here. They’d cavort, leap and gesture wildly, like something from an Expressionist painting. And strike tableau poses, for which I’m not sure if there’s a name. They’d not just make up a pattern but combine together to form a single shape, like a gestalt creature. The poster image came from one of these (the witches at work, as you may have guessed), and was what first piqued my interest.

We’re now used to naturalistic versions of Shakespeare. Which probably started as a righteous reaction to the stiff-backed, tights-clad RP recitals of luvvieland, but has long since become as ritualised in its own way. So reacting against this, with a very physical, very ritualised approach may well be wise. Rather than be desperate to ‘contemporise’ a Jamesian play it almost looked back. While part of the company went through with their lines, the rest acted as a kind of Greek chorus.

At times it seemed to be riffing on popular notions of “the Scottish play’”, that the whole thing is an extension of the witches scene, some sort of dark, malevolent spell. And if the whole play is the witches while we’re the fearful yet forever curious Macbeth, drawn in by that poster. (And remember, while ’Hamlet’ opens with characters talking about the ghost, ’Macbeth’ goes straight to the witches. Even though plot demands means it then has to go elsewhere, then come straight back to them.) And it was often nothing less than striking to watch.

But what Shakespeare is is psychological. Whether he was the first dramatist to get us interested in the interior life of his characters, or whether he was the one who got known for it, is probably moot at this point. We accept devices such as the heightened language because it aids his mission, gives us more of an insight into those character’s minds. Which means…

When Macbeth first encounters the three witches, in all their otherworldliness, the grand gestures of physical theatre work well. But when he hesitates to commit the crime, and has to be talked into it by his Missis, that’s quite a different kind of scene. The witches are, in some way or other, a personification of his ambition. While Lady Macbeth is a character in the play. We need to believe two people are standing on stage, debating, each with their own thought processes. Inevitably, the staging for this scene differs.

The programme states that Flabbergast “takes a rigorous and respectful approach to text, combining it with exhilarating aspects of live music and event performance.” Which seems a little like wanting it both ways, to be both an Expressionist painting and a faithfully realist sketch.

For one thing, the acrobatics of physical theatre often made it hard to hear the words, which were sometimes gabbled or delivered sing-song. I overheard one guy, who was reliant on lip-reading, saying he’d picked up not one line.

Is this circle unsquareable? I don’t think it is. But you need to go round it one way or the other.

For one way, we might argue that Shakespeare is now part of our folk culture. In the old Radio Four phrase, his works are already on the island. Not many of us now go to see ’Macbeth’ to see how ’Macbeth’ ends, after all. So he can be taken the way you would a folk tale. It’s not enough to say he’s open to re-interpretation, he’s become embedded, source material, so we can create works which only refer obliquely to him.

In a week when we’re all remembering Jean-Luc Godard, one of his maxims was “texts are death”. Meaning, I think, they constrain and stifle. DreamThinkSpeak’s version of ‘Hamlet’, ’The Rest Is Silence’ would be an example of this approach. (Note how it’s not named after the original play, but a quote from it.)

Or you can play up a problem until it becomes its own solution. In a ‘schizo style’ performance, where the two styles are deliberately set against one another, perhaps conveyed by something like lighting changes. The banquet scene, when Macbeth spies daggers and then not, is the closest to this. This is more or less how Cheek By Jowl managed ‘Ubu Roi’. 

As it was, Flabbergast gave a bold effort which didn’t entirely come off, something you wanted to like more than you actually did.

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