Volcano has form for being a bit provocative on occasions. Text and ideology is unpicked, crushed, analysed, reformed and presented to an audience in an unapologetic manner. I’ve seen a few of their productions over the years and have also been fortunate to perform in 2010’s ‘Elsinore’ – as part of their Unknown Pleasures series (a UWTSD, Taliesin & Volcano collaboration that supports emerging artists).
When Volcano ‘did’ Macbeth 18 years ago, it caused a bit of controversy – generally banned or disapproved of – with a sprinkling of outraged people walking out – excellent. Nigel Charnock, who sadly passed away in 2012, choreographed the original production. So it’s a version of Macbeth that comes with history, scandal and high expectations.
I caught the 2016 touring production at Swansea’s Taliesin. My partner, child (both Volcano virgins) and fellow Performing Arts Graduate Alan Waldron joined me for the evening. I may have neglected to tell two of them that it wasn’t the usual version of Macbeth – a small omission on my part….
We entered the auditorium to the two actors moving about on the stage, one cooking food that was omitting an ‘out of place’ smell of fried onions. The strangeness continued from there on, making the most of Macbeth’s themes of supernaturalism and fast paced decline into tragedy.
The production consisted of two performers; Mairi Phillips who played Lady Macbeth, and Alex Harries who played a beefy Macbeth. And it was these two performers who grabbed hold of the audience at the start and didn’t let go until the end. They didn’t let up – their energy, commitment, physicality and grasp of the subtext made the show highly engaging. Even during the times I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
The jumping in and out of the text was explosive and absurd, the energy changing in a millisecond. The actors talking to their audience at times, even inviting six members (the dreaded audience participation) to make up the guests at Macbeth’s famous banquet. In fact, watching these dinner guests interact with each other and their hosts was one of the stand-out moments of the show.
Well known Macbeth monologues were given the attention they deserved with Scottish Mairi delivering the ‘out damned spot, out I say’ speech both eerily and honestly – I so felt the guilt and the subtle nod to the hopeless inner rage of women.
Beefy Macbeth was at odds with Lady Macbeth’s delicate form – this worked and their chemistry and journey together felt real and at times lovely. His energetic, breathless performance provided comedic moments but also conveyed the speed and inevitability of their rollercoaster ride into doom.
And let’s not forget the creepy dolls! The entire performance featured some very spooky dolls that popped up like Chucky and kept the genre of absurdism threaded through the activities on stage. Lady Macbeth walking a doll across the stage towards the end was an incredibly moving, gentle, grief-stricken and dismal moment. Whilst Macbeth’s brutal pummelling of one of the dolls with his fists was quite simply horrific.
Designer Tina Torbey’s set was oddly symbolic and powerful. It’s simplicity and stark whiteness were at odds with the dark forces at work. Ben Stimpson’s lighting design complimented the show and lit up the action, the audience and the actors at appropriate and inappropriate moments to keep us on the adrenaline charged journey.
I asked my 12 year old daughter what she thought after it had ended and she said ‘It was really weird, it was really good, the dolls were scary but I have no idea what was going on”. I’d say she will probably reap the benefits of last night when she studies Macbeth one day.
We need more Volcano productions in the world. They are the antidote to safe theatre. They make us think and they make us confused and they make us discuss ‘theatre’. Congratulations to the cast, crew and Director Paul Davies (Volcano founder and one of the original Macbeth performers). It was a weird way to spend a Saturday night. X-Factor it wasn’t.
Check the Volcano website for details of where you can catch Macbeth.