Review: Macbeth, Song of the Goat at the Barbican

“It is a tale…full of sound and fury”

Pulling together elements of Corsican chanting, poetry, Korean instrumentation, dance, Japanese-style robes, movement inspired by martial arts training and much manipulation of wooden staffs, Song of the Goat’s hypnotic and mesmerising retelling of Macbeth plays in the Pit at the Barbican after a UK tour which will also see them visit Brighton after this residency.

It is an immersive experience suffused with a primal energy that takes you to the heart of the show, revealing new layers with a piercing emotional directness. To be sure, it isn’t a straight retelling of the play as it is known, indeed it is more accurate to describe it as something like a rhapsody on a theme of Macbeth: it is probably not one for the purists given the amount of editing and cutting here and the occasional dip into obscurity that results, one needs to approach this almost without prior expectation or knowledge in order to just embrace what they are trying to achieve.There’s a beautiful blend of the interpretative sequences with the more recognisable moments which really works: it always feels like Macbeth with familiar scenes and lines of dialogue coming into focus yet it also delves down into something more, a stronger essence of dark magic and tragedy that somehow feels compellingly authentic.

One of the key starting points for this exploration of Macbeth has been the deep interrogation of the musicality of the text, its pulsing rhythm and cadences and their deep understanding of this allows them to jettison so much of the famous prose in favour of a leaner approach focused around music. Accompanied by Rafal Habel’s accomplished kayagum playing, a Korean string instrument sounding akin to the sitar with its tremulous rippling of sound, the haunting polyphonic Corsican folk songs that are sung throughout play the hugest part in transporting us elsewhere during the running time. Quite where I am not sure, it is at once otherworldly and magical, yet all-too-human in its evocations of impassioned, wailing grief, familiar to so many cultures if not the English.

Gabriel Gawin’s potent Macbeth is excellent, sketching out a persuasive viciousness to his relationship with his wife and the clear-sighted brutality of their chosen path. And Anna Zubrzycki’s Lady Macbeth is just outstanding: her ‘out out damn spot…’ is one of the most haunting things I’ve seen all year, the way in which she modulates her voice in the descent into madness a particular highlight and the choice to keep her onstage ‘til the end makes perfect sense here, her wailing and keening over her husband’s body making a lasting final visual and auditory impact. Ian Morgan’s Macduff is also beautifully played and Anu Salonen’s ululations as a witch highly affecting.

The Barbican really does have a knack of identifying European companies who are really challenging the way in which Shakespeare is presented: last year Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s presentation of The Roman Tragedies was hands down the most innovative and exhilrating experience of the year and this year Song of the Goat have come very close to achieving the same in their novel reimagining of this classic. Perhaps it is not a fair comparison, but ultimately I found this a much more truthful example of the distillation of Shakespeare’s works than as seen in Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth or even Filter’s Twelfth Night both of which tended towards the self-indulgent for me: I honestly believe that this is a production that the Bard himself could have envisioned, in its utter commitment to the ensemble and to the integrity of the vision behind this interpretation.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free
Booking until 20th November

4 thoughts on “Review: Macbeth, Song of the Goat at the Barbican

  1. Agreed. Having let it soak in for a few days I can honestly say it is one of the most affecting productions I've seen this year. A real shame that this won't be seen by as many people as it should (though quite pleasing to be one of the few to witness it). Can still hear Lady Macbeth's wailing!

  2. i couldn't decide whether it was mesmerisingly brilliant or absolute gash. the more i think about it, i'm leaning towards the latter. to have lady macbeth onstage, mourning at the end, reimagining of the shakespearean text or not, just did not work. moreover, lady macbeth was entirely unconvincing.

    a shame – there were some superb moments; the killing of macbeth is the best i've seen, and the musical accompaniment was glorious. but it still fell short.

  3. That's a shame, as I do think it was much better than you give it credit for and personally I thought Zubrzycki’s Lady Macbeth was incredible. The trick is to dissociate it from what you know of Shakespeare's narrative and just embrace what they are trying to do for itself: it took me ages to work out who was Banquo but ultimately it didn't really matter and as a meditation on grief, I thought the final scene was just stunning and entirely appropriate.

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