Friday, 26 April 2013

C S Lewis biography by Alister McGrath

I've reviewed Alister McGrath's new biography of C S Lewis, author of a now ignored epic poem called Dymer - oh, and something called the Narnia series. Read it here.

Friday, 12 April 2013

James McAvoy in Macbeth: review

Macbeth is a bloody play, there's no doubt about that. From the opening speeches - "What bloody man is that?" - and the captain's gory image of his "gashes" crying for help, all the way through to the usurping, murderous King's end, it's not one that lets violence happen offstage.

But it is also a play that contains poetry, and stillness, and contrast; and in this, Jamie Lloyd's relentless production at Trafalgar Studios was a touch lacking.

The action took place in a claustrophobic, bare, post-apocalyptic setting in the round, with the actors frequently breaking out of their space into the audience - James McAvoy's furious Macbeth entered rushing on his knees, whilst the porter addressed a puzzled playgoer. The setting played on the "tale told by an idiot / full of sound and fury / signifying nothing," as we were treated to something almost Beckettian in its starkness; and yet the players were constantly rocketing about the stage, spitting and screaming as if they were always on the point of death.

Everybody was covered in blood, most of the time, which (as my companion, who hadn't seen the play before) didn't do much to help identify who was who. Because of the constant barrage of decibels and speed of the speeches, the sense and beauty of the poetry was indeed reduced to sound and fury.

The production borrowed tropes from horror films: masked murderers, a zombie-like Banquo's ghost, severed heads and trapdoors (which sometimes tipped into absurdity.) And that is a problem of genre, because Macbeth is not a horror film, and reducing it to a simple matter of gore piled upon gore robs it of any sense of grandeur.

For we never got a sense that Macbeth thought about his actions. James McAvoy is an engaging actor, and clearly enjoyed strutting about the stage, packing the performance (quite literally) with some guts; but he was a psychopathic Macbeth, one for whom violence is all, not one who equivocated. Similarly, Lady Macbeth was so insane from the beginning that when she did go nuts you hardly noticed. The text was cut up too: the shock of the prophecy about Dunsinane wood was immediately spoiled by a cut in to the English soldiers being ordered to pick up trees.

Mark Quartley's Malcolm was a welcome point of calm(ish); and Jamie Ballard's Macduff produced the most emotional moment in the play, with Shakespeare's devastating line - "All my pretty chickens?" He showed a father's sheer grief and terror at the death of his family beautifully. If only he hadn't spoiled it all by screaming his revenge.

The largely young audience clearly enjoyed this Macbeth, and I suppose if enough teenagers go away thinking, well Shakespeare isn't that bad after all, then that must be positive. But I can't help wishing that the matter of the play had been allowed to breathe a little more, that the poetry had been allowed to sing. Macbeth himself becomes a poet, after all: "Light thickens / And the crow makes wing to the rocky wood." Yes, this is a play of seething terror and blackness: but blackness, in order to function properly, needs light.