Most people, particularly Shakespeare enthusiasts, would probably balk at the idea of one of the Bard’s bloodiest tragedies being performed by puppets. However, this beautiful and compelling adaption of the Scottish Play, currently playing at Islington’s delightful Little Angel Theatre, dissolves any doubts and misconceptions one might have within the first five minutes.
Directed and adapted by the Little Angel’s own Artistic Director, Peter Glanville, this production is part of the Suspense Festival, a series of plays taking place across 12 venues, presenting puppetry for adults. The play runs for 90 minutes with no interval, but makes up for what is cut out in abundance, with its imagination, inventiveness and sheer originality.
Every character is portrayed by some kind of bird, showcasing Shakespeare’s tremendous use of imagery and highlighting and playing on the metaphors of a text that is littered with references to fowl. The murderous Macbeth himself is played by a mean-looking wooden cockerel and his wife a chicken, whilst King Duncan and other members of the monarchy become gentle and majestic swans. The talented puppeteers are three women (Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James) dressed in black with whitened faces and sunken eyes, who could pass for the ‘three weird sisters’ themselves, but who actually operate the puppets with such skill and dexterity that their presence is both eerily haunting and, occasionally, momentarily forgotten.
The use of puppets instead of humans, of course, means that the director can defy limitation and do things that are not usually possible on stage, and Glanville takes full advantage of this. Far from detracting from the play’s horrific subject matter and disturbing events, and combined with Peter O’Rourke’s terrific set and David Duffy’s atmospheric lighting design, the puppets fashion an exciting new dimension, accentuating the awfulness and creating undeniable creepiness. That the beaks never move to the recorded dialogue only serves to compliment an already weird, but remarkably successful effect. Shakespeare’s world becomes one in which witches soar and swoop menacingly, innocent chicks get murdered in their nest and pecking cocks fight ferociously to the death.
Whilst the key events of the original script are put across clearly and convincingly and the recorded dialogue is meticulously audible throughout, a good prior knowledge of the play is essential to glean a full understanding of what is happening. The recording means that the script comes across with new clarity and immediacy, every word crystal clear and loaded with meaning. Nathanial Parker’s Macbeth is beautifully commanding and crisp, his Lady Macbeth ingeniously interpreted by Helen McCrory who brings a sexy femininity to the character and new meaning to ‘foul (fowl) is fair…’.
All in all, this Macbeth is a challenge and a half which the company pulls off with commendable gusto and which will undoubtedly create a new legion of adult puppetry fans. I’d love to see their take on Hamlet….