Macbeth Kills the Duchess

Mon 14th – Sat 26th August 2017

reviews

Claire Leibovich

at 11:23 on 16th Aug 2017

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Writer-director Charlie Ralph comes back to the the Fringe this year with his new play ‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’, produced by his company BIGHEAD and performed by a bunch of young actors familiar to the Edinburgh student drama arena. The text is presented as ‘a tragic new comedy’, and whilst the comic dimension is present, the tragic one is not.

A confused and egocentric anarchist, a rogue, a deluded Shakespeare fan, her enamoured friend and an opportunistic employee associate to kill the Duchess of Chelsea. The clownish duo of Macbeth (Sally Macalister) and Horatio (Michael Black) is definitely the most striking feature of the show and made the public laugh the most. Macbeth is so obsessed with Shakespeare that when she is prompted by Harry (Sasha Briggs) and Jack (Henry Coldstream) to kill the Duchess of Chelsea she dresses up in Elizabethan costumes (or rather ‘like twats’ as Charlotte says), followed by Horatio. Yet their chalk-white face paint indicates that they are more ‘incompetent’ clowns than tragic heroes. They are manipulated by the cowardly Harry and Jack to try to kill the Duchess for them, while Charlotte (En Thompson), the bribed employee looks on, detached and amused at first, yet increasingly more intrigued and compassionate.

The actors are likeable, at ease, and the dialogues flow nicely ; some lines are frankly funny (‘she was assistant director… stage manager… and she got the sacks’). Macalister’s farcical act does not get tiresome, however the transition from a bit cuckoo to completely mad in a monolgue scene towards the end of the play wants contrast and is not as powerful as it was surely intended to be. Michael Black is moving and Em Thompson has perfect sass. On the other hand, Sasha Briggs and Henry Coldstream’s characters seem to lack depth, but that might be the text’s failure more than the actors’. Indeed, Sasha Briggs has one facial expression, that of tenseness and irritation, and Harry Coldstream’s character is rather irrelevant and flat.

‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’ claims to explore ‘the poetic nature of a troubled generation’ yet the social comment appears to go all over the place and spreads thin. Interesting tropes are present but none are exploited thoroughly or originally. Young people who say ‘fuck’ to everything without ‘having thought it through’, those who romanticise terrorism by feeding on tragically misinterpreted literature, a brief comment about royals slash rich people not being as happy as we imagine them to be. The ending falls flat as it leaves us with neither a strong statement nor new ideas to chew over. The comedy might have been thought of as subservient to an exploration of human nature or a social commentary, yet it ended up being the best part of the play. ‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’ is thoroughly enjoyable thanks mostly to the farcical dimension of the text and the talented cast, yet it is not a challenging or though-provoking show and you will probably forget it quite quickly.

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Eloise Heath

at 11:53 on 17th Aug 2017

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Four conspirators lurk in the underbelly of a stately home, conspiring to kill the Duchess of Chelsea. Two of these would-be assassins, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Horatio’, hide behind Shakespearean codenames and clownish outfits. Whilst the other two (Harry and Jack) think themselves harder by far, all four are totally, cluelessly naive. This new piece of writing from Charlie Ralph is a tragicomedy of disenchanted youth, and a take down of posers: the ideological and the theatrical alike.

A good deal of the writing is excellent. The humour feels fresh, and the script is peppered with pleasingly self aware moments. Just when the periodical recitation of the bard’s verse by such young characters begins to feel contrived, for instance, another character preempts the audience’s question: “how do you all know so much f*cking Shakespeare?!”. Similarly, when a sound effect is deployed with pinpoint ironic accuracy, one of the conspirators immediately notes ‘well that was well timed’, eliciting a further laugh. These small but effective moments generate and sustain a refreshing sense of the tongue in cheek.

Many of the wittiest moments and biggest laughs are delivered by En Thompson who, in her role as Charlotte, deserves a special mention for her standout performance. Dry, sassy and charismatic, she steals the show. The rest of the performances are creditable across the board, Sasha Briggs especially possessing a pleasing wryness. However, occasionally the actors let the energy lag, and indeed this is a fault shared by the script. The play lists Fawlty Towers as one formative source material, but sadly ‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’ never attains such levels of frenetic energy. Granted, there are moments of farcical brilliance- Jack’s gun refusing to fire, him looking down the barrel as he tests it repeatedly- but these would be better situated in a more consistently energised and pacy production. Whilst, yes, farce is a form that builds in intensity, here the early stages are just a little too ponderous.

The press release describes the production as ‘set in two corridors of horizontal white light’; a slightly pretentious way, perhaps, to describe two large squares of light that act in lieu of a set. Sadly, whilst it is claimed that ‘the production pushes the actors to find new ways to interact within abstract space’, this doesn’t really come off. There are moments when the lighting design comes into its own, most notably in the plays final moments, but unfortunately these two spaces aren’t clearly defined and delineated by the actors or the blocking. So, whilst I enjoy the clean minimalism of this design, it loses any real sense of deliberateness or clarity.

‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’ showcases some strong writing, sadly undermined is places by issues of pacing and staging. Indeed, some of the heavier concepts fail to pack their full potential punch. However, if you’re interested in Shakespearean allusion, liminal space, and metatheacricality (and you can’t face yet another production of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’), ‘Macbeth Kills the Duchess’ is an amusing and worthwhile watch.

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