“High on energy, low on iambic pentameter” is definitely an apt summary for Lumo Company and Full Sail Productions Ltd.’s MacBETTI, taking to the London and Brighton Fringe. This review is of the Brighton performance at the Marlborough Theatre.
Heidi Niemi’s humorous and energised performance paired well with one-liners and melodrama to encompass a different take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Her show possessed a clear focus on visual imagery and mime – from using an asthma pump, to beheading a jacket, symbolic of Macbeth – and this was, for the most part, effective and comical. Niemi’s characterisations were funny and, mostly, clear. She had made a gestural base, such as a lifted eyebrow, the taking of the asthma pump, etc., to create an easy portrait for the audience – but, perhaps maybe too easy? There were, however, moments in quick changes where characters were unclear or lost, and diction was sometimes terrible, further clouding this. Also, particular choices in characterisations were confusing…for example, why she had chosen to perform one of The Witches as a swearing rapper complete with knuckle dusters and a shiny cap. Her mime, though, was pleasing and satisfying. Effective. And her cross-dressing (as well as that of the Prompter (Gus Kennedy Jacob), the character of whom I will address later) made a tingling signal to a common Shakespearean practice.
As for her set – a frame with a closed curtain, Upstage Centre; a microphone, speaker and computer setup, Downstage Right – it was minimal and somewhat unflattering, but fed well into the allusiveness of her performance. The curtain, for example, enabled an allusion to a puppet show, burlesque, etc. Niemi’s performance space covered the stage; just outside, through the exit (where she disappeared at one point); and the audience space. And this leads me on to my next point of focus: audience participation.
Whilst Brighton audiences tend to like audience participation and so this kept the interest up and the energy flowing, I couldn’t help but feel the audience participation to be highly unnecessary. Towards the end of the play, audience members are given a huge bulk of stemmed leaves to share around, and towards the beginning of the play, I myself was given a teddy bear to hold (symbolic of Macduff’s Son). Whilst the handover of the teddy bear was comical, the leaves were questionable, and both objects possessed an awkward stasis in the audience once the scene was complete. Also towards the beginning, when Niemi enters as Lady Macbeth, she presents to an audience member a piece of text to be read aloud. This seemed extremely pointless to me and took away, I thought, from the politics of her performance.
The politics was ineffably diluted. As Niemi herself states boldly in rhyme at the beginning of the performance, MacBETTI is supposed to, almost, showcase a woman’s talent in being able to perform an array of characters not available for women in theatre. It is presented as a feminist approach to convey how she is just as able to perform these characters as is a man. Why would she, then, give this piece of text to a male audience member to read? Furthermore, we have the character of the Prompter. The very necessary presence of this – again, male – character confounded me greatly. When at first only speaking stage directions, “Scene [Number]”, “Enter [Character]”, etc., this was a clever echo to the writings of a man being performed by a woman. Similarly, when Jacob “forgets” his lines, this is a clever allusion to the fallibility of the male performer. However, when her mime became dependent on sound effects he made in the microphone, or when he was given segments of the show all to himself whilst Niemi remained offstage or altogether out of the room, his significance became a blur. It felt as if his character undermined the feminist messages of the play. If she could do all of these characters alone, as a woman, why didn’t she? Couldn’t she have done the sound effects herself, mimed the other characters as she did elsewhere in the show? Or, moreover, why wasn’t the Prompter a woman? “One woman. All the roles. A quest for total power”, and yet, she didn’t seem very powerful at all.
Whilst some moments felt very effective and dramatic, such as a dark stage and a torchlit figure (The Witches) skulking into the scene from behind the curtain, others felt ridiculous: the first appearance of The Witches where Niemi covers herself in a sheet and bobs up and down with flailing arms. Whilst entertaining for the first few minutes, this slowly became an infantile emblem. The show was, indeed, very prop-heavy, which was not necessarily a bad thing at all, but it is worth considering if this stole too much from her ability to physicalise these characters and emote the narrative alone.
“Comical yet clouded.”