Socially-distanced Shakespeare: Big Telly Theatre Bring You the Bard from their Bedrooms.
From mid-pandemic panic, Big Telly Theatre have produced and performed one of Shakespeare’s most chilling plays – Macbeth. The actors have never met; they’re responsible for their own tech, makeup and wardrobes. When you log into the Zoom performance as an audience member, you’re on mute, one of many small screens. It’s the only play I’ve watched with a technical briefing at the start: you’re asked to dim the lights, close the doors, watch out for witches.
And then the technical briefing is followed by a COVID briefing. It’s the first scene of the play and the three pedestals, the wood panelling, the suits, all look eerily familiar. The scene is a far cry from the misty Scottish Highlands but, right now, it’s enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine. Only, it’s not coronavirus these three ministers are warning us about. It’s witches. And then they start the witch screening.
Soon, live footage of audience members fills the screen. There’s always a second or two before they recognise themselves and then they blink, smile, wave. If a witch hat appears on their head – who knows how this is managed by the tech team, or even where the tech team are – then they’ve found a witch. Exactly what this means is unclear, but it raises a smile, brings a sense of camaraderie to proceedings.
The performances are stellar; Nicky Harley (Game of Thrones, HBO) and Lucia McAnespie (The National, Trafalgar Studios, Lyric Theatre, Finborough Theatre, Soho Theatre) are great as the murderous main couple, while Dennis Herdman (Around The World In 80 Days – Tour, RSC, Regent’s Park, Shakespeare’s Globe, RSC, New Vic Theatre), Aonghus Og McAnally (Penny Dreadful, Showtime, John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail, The Barbican) and Dharmesh Patel (RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe) take on the rest of the roles between them. Later, after the play, it’s explained by company founder and director, Zoe Seaton, that these actors are based in London, Dublin, Belfast, Kent and Deptford. When the characters are supposed to be in the same room, backdrop images have been shared and moved slightly, to give the illustration of a slightly different perspective. The approach is ingenious, the effect impressive. It’s these creative solutions, the determination of the actors and the unseen producers, that give the production its energy.
In these circumstances, it’s impossible for the play to be anything but fragmented. Scenes are cut and spliced; it’s not always clear which sections are being performed live and which are recorded. The backdrop-sharing is ingenious but a little jarring and, while some special effects are amazing, others are a little clumsy. At times, the scenes feel like solutions to problems. But it’s nice to see some solutions. In fact, it’s perfect. We don’t need another production of Macbeth at the RSC with luxurious sets and lighting. We need a Macbeth that can be performed and enjoyed now.
Lady Macbeth paces around her bedroom in Belfast, railing at her husband who is sitting at her dressing table (in fact he is sitting at a different dressing table, in another room in Deptford) it’s amazing to consider the other actors that have said these words, paced other rooms, in other circumstances. Wars, famine, natural disasters. And Lady Macbeth is still railing. Still washing her hands, still seeing blood.
This is director Zoe Seaton’s fifth lockdown production since April 2020. She’s used the challenges of social-distancing to inform her work; the unpredictability of technology is another visual effect.
‘Think of the witches like spyware,’ she says. ‘A form of malicious behaviour gathering information and infiltrating the system. The show is loaded with technology aimed at playing tricks on the mind, eyes and ears of the spectator. I want them to feel privy to every dilemma and dark corner of this classic text but we also want to be playful and have fun with the characteristics of digital theatre – garbled audio, inexplicable dropouts, fake locations, special effects – the unpredictability of the internet – exactly what is live and what is not – like in horror films when there seems to be a power cut – what if your connection hasn’t been lost – what if it’s been taken? Constantly shifting between the dark and the light, between horror and comedy.”
This balance is effective – some scenes are eerie, others quite jolly, with members of the audience projected onto the screen as guests at the coronation banquet, raising mugs of tea to toast the new King. It’s fragmented and strange, challenging at times but still good fun. And it exists – it’s being performed, night after night, to people that have bought tickets. And right now, that feels incredible.
Big Telly Theatre’s Macbeth is this year hosted by the Belfast International Arts Festival (BIAF). The BIAF is Northern Ireland’s leading contemporary arts festival and, unexpectedly virtual in its 58th year, presents three innovative digital theatrical productions by local and international companies.
Festival Director Richard Wakely said: “In recent months, due to the restrictions facing the arts and cultural sectors, theatre companies – and indeed artists and innovators from right across the creative industries – have adapted their approach to storytelling to leverage evolving digital technologies and to showcase world-leading theatre remotely.
“This year, we will host two local companies – Big Telly Theatre Company and Cahoots NI – who are leading the way in programming interactive, immersive and compelling productions specifically for the digital stage.”
These events, he says, are unlike similar digital productions that rose to prominence in recent months.
“Importantly, these productions are interactive, not passive. With that comes another layer of complexity in delivering a seamless production that is directed and performed remotely. It also demonstrates how much the storytelling medium has progressed in a relatively short space of time. In April and May, when the digital stage came to the fore, audiences were spectators consuming stories.
“However, now we’re seeing a shift in focus to a strategy that is aimed at ensuring the best elements of the theatrical experience – audience engagement and interaction – are reflected in new productions in this era of the digital stage and our socially distanced world.”
And this is what stays with you after the cast take their final bows and the digital curtain falls (i.e. you leave the call). There’s a lot of anxiety for the arts right now but shows like this, put together in the most challenging of circumstances, suggest that art is inevitable. No matter how brutally it’s steamrolled, no matter how hard the cement sets, arts finds a way to peep out, grow through the cracks.
Double, double toil and trouble; live-streamed theatre for your social bubble.
To book tickets for more Belfast International Arts Festival events, including the Macbeth showing this evening (Saturday 17th October) with a special post-show talk and the showing at midnight on the 30th October visit the production’s page on the website here. Book tickets for showings from the 21st-31st October here. You can also sign up to the Big Telly Theatre Mailing List and check out more BIAF events on the website here, including Cahoots NI’s The University of Wonder & Imagination, running from Thursday 22- Sunday 25 October and Thursday 29 October – Sunday 1 November.
About the Reviewer
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She works as a digital copywriter and is writing a novel. You can find her interviews with authors on her blog and follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.