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Feelgood Theatre Company and Theatre Under Fire in Macbeth, Heaton Park, Manchester

Posted on September 23, 2010


Shakespeare’s words are a wonder of the world, but his dramatic world was also a world of physical theatre, and closer to song and dance than we sometimes remember today. We should remind ourselves that his most famous clown, William Kempe, who was surely a great mover on stage for the Bard, was as well known for his dancing as for his clowning. Indeed, he became known as “the nine days’ wonder” when he danced his marathon jig from London to Norwich.

So, while we have grown accustomed to productions of Shakespeare which emphasise the spoken word and often offer relatively little in terms of physicality and of song and dance, there may be something missing. On the other hand the multitude of ballets and dance dramas which have been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays almost all have one very remarkable and very curious characteristic in common – they dispense entirely with Shakespeare’s words.

A balance between these two approaches is surely – to echo Hamlet’s thoughts – “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. Something of that consummation, however, is brought about in the production of Macbeth by the Manchester-based Feelgood Theatre Company. Described as an “open-air promenade production fusing Shakespeare’s dynamic text with haunting African rhythms”, and taking place in the spacious greenery of Manchester’s Heaton Park, the audience are themselves choreographed into undertaking journeys and forming tableaux on hillsides, in grottos, and in woodland. The scenes themselves are brought to life by the actors, dancers, singers, and musicians of the Feelgood Theatre Company and the Leeds-based Theatre Under Fire, an ensemble of performers in exile from their Zimbabwean homeland.

The performance opens with a song and dance of welcome. The three witches then demonstrate, as they do throughout their re-appearances, that they are not only wonderfully wild in their attire but also marvellously wild in their movements. Duncan the King enters as guest into Macbeth’s residence and joins in an extended and celebratory dance of welcome, replete with raised arms, jumps, and energetic stamping. The guests to the banquet where Banquo’s ghost appears arrive in procession, singing and dancing in unison.

Not that these choreographed sequences serve in any way to detract from the words.  Faz Singhateh as Macbeth is an appropriately dominating, domineering, and yet doubting presence, giving full value to the meaning and the music of Shakespeare’s poetry. The military characters speak their lines with the conviction and adrenaline of soldiers while embracing and greeting each other as comrades in arms. Caroline Clegg (also the producer and director) brings Lady Macbeth to life not only through the ruthless poetry which flows from her lips but also through the physicality of a performance both steely and sensuous.

As the evening progresses the park descends into darkness, mirroring the descent of Scotland into chaos under Macbeth’s murderous rule. Renewal when it comes is revealed not only through Shakespeare’s poetry. It is then also revealed through a song for peace in the style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, sung by a cast praying and swaying in unison. The political connection with present day Zimbabwe has been made – and we are also reminded that without Zimbabwean cultural traditions the dances and the drumming which informed this performance would have been impossible to invent. I experienced the performance in the company of both Shakespearean enthusiasts and a group of teenagers, many experiencing a live performance of Shakespeare for the first time. Both groups came away amazed, moved, and enthused. And so did I.

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