Reading the set up of Living With Macbeth was immediately reminiscent of the ending of the film Withnail & I. Decribed as a “psychological story about reminiscence and past glories, about actors, what they do….and what they should not do”, and especially with that Shakespearean setting, it brought to mind that touching final scene with Richard E Grant, gesticulating to the heavens with a bottle in the rain.
And so it turned out, it could be said this production came from that same tragi-comic sort of insiders’ place – albeit with the passage of time. Living With Macbeth told the tale of a conflict between two performers in the Scottish Play, debating who deserved that coveted lead role, and why. Paul Braithwaite played a chirpy Northern comedian – not much substance to his vulgar shtick, tabloid fodder thanks to his relationship with a Big Brother contestant – to Kevin Brannagan’s almost unbearably po-faced ac-tor. (Between them, they comprise Storm Theatre, and the piece was directed by Brannagan as well.)
Yet despite the professional actor’s perceived pedigree, it was the comedian who had lucked his way into the prime, high-profile lead of Macbeth. A matter of ability? The theatre’s desperation for the publicity to get their play staged at all? In that kind of world, what really matters? What’s the point? It was an interesting premise that raised questions and played well between the two actors, who had a good, solid chemistry.
Although putting on the production in the site-specific space of Parr Street Studio 2 (the downstairs bit, not the upstairs venue) was a great idea in theory, did it work? Maybe not. Bands rehearsing in the studio upstairs were audible, as were those chatting in the adjacent bar. And as the sun went down, all semblence of a stage space was lost, as the players and audience were slowly emerged in the same darkness. The production team had previously spoken of the challenge of this bespoke performance; and it was hard to say whether that equality in the surroundings between actors and audience was deliberate or not.
The first act was slightly clunky in prose – it seemed a tad too pleased with its own witty dialogue; but by the second half, we had benefited by understanding the characters, and the writing was generally funnier and tighter as well. And although under the circumstances it was highly debatable an interval was necessary, there was big potential to this two-hander.
The friction between our two characters – that in a Pinter-esque way did not appear to ever be named – eventually became clear. Why should our comedian friend, with his supposedly lesser art form, walk right into the role of Macbeth over someone who’s been waiting their life to do The Bard in such a high profile production?
We see the comic’s fear and reticence behind the cheeky chappy persona – and the actor’s superiority complex and resentment – come to a head in a conflict that is at times petty, and ultimately threatening. Brannagan’s full-length tweed overcoat, again, made one think of that final scene of Withnail. Perhaps last night’s performance was in keeping with Storm Theatre’s taste for working in unusual spaces, but maybe there’d be something to be said for eventually taking Living With Macbeth to more traditional theatrical space as well.