Having had a chat with both Macbeth (Olivia Dowd) and Lady Macbeth (Isabel Adomakoh Young) a fortnight prior, I was particularly excited to see them on stage for the National Youth Theatre’s production of Macbeth. Moira Buffini’s abridged version results in a snappy, intense play which runs straight through for just under 100 minutes with no interval between.
The production opens with a bang, curtains rising on the three troublemaking witches who craftily instigate most of the trouble in Macbeth. In keeping with the ‘genderfluid’ casting, two of them are played by male actors, Aidan Cheng and Jeffrey Sangalang, with Simran Hunjun completing the trio. Gender doesn’t really matter with the witches, who even in Shakespeare’s original were not so much ‘female’ as ‘unclassifiable’. Nixon has really run with the freaky theme for the witches here; Cheng giggles manically while tottering around the stage in white facepaint, fetish heels and a fluffy tutu, while Hunjun, draped head to toe in red, wanders about the stage like a monolithic Cassandra. Cheng is particularly convincing in his ‘creepy clown’ portrayal, although I did find it a bit over-the-top. But perhaps that was the point. The three of them are a looming presence throughout the play, and reappear as Macbeth’s hired assassins – a nice touch that underscores the central role of the witches to the events of the plot.
The lack of an interval works well, with no loss of momentum as we are carried from plot twist to plot twist. Minimalistic and uncluttered staging helps achieve this with fluidity, while Helena Bonner’s striking costume designs for the witches ensure we have our fill of visually arresting scenes.
Dowd is undoubtedly the star of the show, with her brilliant, layered portrayal of Macbeth. Hungry ambition, deep-seated self-doubt and crushing guilt are written transparently in turn on her expressive features, and Macbeth’s famous soliloquy “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” is delivered with such raw vulnerability that we really feel the empty meaninglessness lurking behind its words. Opposite her, Adomakoh Young sparks with energy as Lady Macbeth, urgently spurring Macbeth to action in the first acts before descending into a dark, guilt-driven madness. It’s a well-balanced partnership, with genuine chemistry between the two of them on stage.
For all that the NYT’s Macbeth has been advertised as a genderfluid production, the fact that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in a queer relationship is barely noticeable. As Adomakoh Young said, there doesn’t really seem to be a specific message about gender that Nixon and Buffini are trying to bring across. Rather, if it’s about getting the best actors for each role, Dowd has certainly delivered on that promise.
The rest of the cast delivers a solid supporting performance, but there remains a touch of the amateur about it – overall it definitely feels like a youth theatre performance. Which, admittedly, it is. The point of NYT Rep is to be a training programme for young actors, and it’s good to see casting open up so that more actors, male or female, can cut their teeth on big roles like Macbeth.