By Danielle Farrow
It is not surprising that Inchcolm Island and its 12th century abbey create an incredible setting for Shakespeare’s Scottish play, yet the way in which the cross-water approach, ruined walls, vaulted chambers and open skies informed the piece still managed to surprise. Birds’ cries – and scavenging of discarded food – underscored Shakespeare’s frequent allusions to ominous nature and the natural and unnatural site perfectly frames the bloody tale of Macbeth.
This student production is presented by St Andrew’s University‘s Hands in the Air in association with the Demarco European Arts Foundation. It is hard for such untrained performers to be truly engaged physically, which did impede the visceral power of Shakespeare’s poetry, but these players managed to project their words despite the open spaces and competing gulls and aeroplanes. Overall, the design choices of the production worked very well with their site -though occasionally some audience members suffered impeded views – and despite the slightly too dark final scenes, the shadows cast as Birnam Wood approached Dunsinane Hill provided one of the visual highlights.
Caroline Ailsa Howitt as Lady Macbeth began by trying too hard to illustrate her meaning and it would have been wonderful to see some of her later sweetness and vulnerability in her first appearance to provide something for her “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex“. However, Howitt progressed to real reactions, true feeling and a particularly moving moment in the famous sleepwalking scene where Lady Macbeth’s “give me your hand” – often performed as a barked instruction to her imagined husband – was a desperate cry for comfort and connection. This was just one of the moments in which director Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie and her cast delivered interesting performance choices of considerable freshness.
Macbeth himself, played by Alexander Forsyth, also strengthened as the piper-led journey around the abbey’s grounds, inner courtyard and chambers took us through his journey from acclaimed warrior to murderous tyrant. Over-sung vowels, no doubt part of the effort to project, flattened some of Forsyth’s emotional range, but he found his character’s bravado and fears (Macbeth repeatedly mentions ‘fear’) and the deteriorating relationship with his lady was strikingly realised. There are other strong performances as well, but too many individual characterisations successfully peopled the play for mention here. That said, kudos goes to Gemma Caseley-Kirk’s child of Macduff, whose brief appearance really convinced and whose final cry, along with those of the Strange Town Youth Theatre children playing her siblings, electrified the air with a true emotional charge.
Macbeth on Inchcolm Island, steeped in its own history, clad with decent costume and sumptuous cloaks, is a sure-fire hit because of its location. The achievement beyond that is of a young company who tackle a demanding play with confidence, and – if they are not able to fully connect with and embody the language – they deliver a clear Macbeth with fresh energy and a good deal of understanding.