Macbeth at UCD Astra Hall

Image Credit: UCD Dramsoc

Ellie Hanan Moran reviews the UCD Dramsoc’s annual Shakespeare show

Dramsoc’s 2023 production of Macbeth sets a distinctly more modern and less mystical atmosphere than typical portrayals of the Scottish Play. In this production, Macbeth is a lawyer aspiring to lead the law firm, and Lady Macbeth is a member of the same firm whose only opportunity for leadership is to do so through her husband. This is marked through a set made up of offices, secretarial desks and a board room, as well as office clothes worn by the cast. By making this choice, director Lucy Richards-Smyrk reminds the audience of the timelessness of certain themes in Shakespeare’s works, and their relevance today: in this case, injustice in the workplace by way of nepotism and, even more starkly, sexism.

The theme of gender is highlighted incredibly well in this production. The choice to have a female Banquo brings a new light to Banquo’s frustration with Macbeth’s prophecy of power, while her own success is through the success of her children.  Lady Macbeth struggles to be seen with respect of equality in the workplace, and resorts to gaining power through her husband. Richards-Smyrk was clever and thorough with her attention to this theme, down to small details such as the minor characters who deliver messages being portrayed as female secretaries, and the hilariously done scene in which Lennox talks over and interrupts a female colleague while blowing smoke in her face.

The production features some especially impressive performances, reaching levels that spoke to the actors’ promising future pursuits should they continue their work into a professional capacity. These stand-out performances, as I see it, were as follows. 

Hugely notable and captivating, first of all, was Chris O’Shaughnessy’s portrayal of Macbeth’s famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” soliloquy. His unravelling Macbeth was perfectly paranoid, and the way he delivered the words made the message clear as day to even those with very little understanding of Shakespearean language. I attended the Wednesday evening show with some friends and family members external to UCD, who all remarked on Chris’s delivery making the language feel more understandable and gave a sense that he was not merely reciting learnt off words, but understanding and conveying their meaning, something especially challenging when acting in a Shakespeare play. Another particularly strong performance of his was when Banquo’s ghost appears. Showing the intense emotions of this scene, even a slight stumble coming down from the table did not sway O’Shaughnessy from delivering his lines and staying in character, a testament to his professionalism.

Alongside O’Shaughnessy’s Macbeth, Hayley Dawson’s Banquo and Grainne Condron’s Porter stood out to me as performances that made clear through the actor’s delivery their understanding of the meaning behind their lines, and in the Porter’s case, the comedy in them.

In regard to comedy, the portrayal of the witches in this production was phenomenal, and all three actresses worked together with wonderful chemistry and pacing. Especially enjoyable and successful was the witches’ Skype call with Hecate, portrayed by Conor Henry. The comedy of the Skype tone, alongside the usually foreboding witches’ sudden fear when answering the call is hilarious, and Conor’s stern, almost parental tone as Hecate was wonderful. Unfortunately, I felt like the famous incantation “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” was less successful in its attempts, though I have to credit the vision attempted in the scene. The use of a common office water cooler as the cauldron was a wonderful idea, and I appreciate the atmosphere attempted with the recorded voices, but at least on the night I attended, the dry ice in the water cooler didn’t seem to produce enough to achieve the desired effect, and the pre-recorded voices disrupted the witches’ flow and caused them to fall out of timing and sync a few times. However, I appreciate that these may have been effects achieved on other shows that happened to slip up on this show.  Directorially, I also feel that the water cooler as a cauldron would have been significantly more effective were the water cooler present onstage previously so it had more of a Chekov’s gun effect rather than appearing only as a kind of funny gimmick. Perhaps the interrupting Lennox scene could have taken place at the water cooler instead of in a smoking area, or something to that effect to fully utilise the creativity of the water cooler as cauldron.

At times, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s chemistry seemed off, more like they were colleagues or siblings than a married couple. I wouldn’t consider that necessarily a fault on either actor’s part, as both felt well cast for the role, but unfortunately something was lacking in the chemistry between the two. Faith Olasogba’s red suit-clad Lady Macbeth was powerful and sympathetic, especially given the more relatable modern context of sexism in the workplace. When Macbeth has just killed Duncan and returns shaky and with bloody hands, there was a glimpse of the kind of chemistry between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth I would have liked to see throughout the play. Scenes with heightened emotion showcased the potential for a smoother, more believable dynamic, but quieter scenes drew attention to an unfortunate lack of connection there.

In regard to strong emotion, I have to mention Colm Fagan’s brilliant portrayal of Macduff’s grief upon discovering his wife and children have been murdered. Even managing to maintain character to deliver the line “All my pretty chickens?” would have been impressive to me, but Fagan commits fully, managing even to bring tears to his eyes, and showing a tenderness in Macduff. Likewise, Macduff’s wife and child, played by Aifric O’Donnell and Lucy Woods, surprised me by being one of the stand-out parts of the play for me. Their conversation as mother and daughter felt very believable, and they brought a very dynamic relationship complete with comedy to the scene. The end of their scene’s already conflicted ending (the funniness of the line “what, you egg” immediately followed by the murder of the child), was enhanced here by the shocking choice to have the murder shoot the child with a gun. 

A gun is only used at one other point in the play, and that is for Lady Macbeth to kill herself after performing her final soliloquy. The choice for Lady Macbeth to commit suicide onstage following her final lines is one I felt worked well, I did think that the use of a blood packet was unnecessary, as it wasn’t visible enough once used to add impact, considering the fact that the lights go down as she shoots. That being said, the use of the blood packet in the slitting of Macbeth’s throat was incredibly well done, and earned a well-deserved gasp from the audience. It was brilliantly choreographed, as was the fight scene leading up to it. 

Richards-Smyrk’s artistic vision for Macbeth was achieved through evidently, a production team that truly understood the vision and their part to play in making it a reality. All elements, from the lighting and sound design, the cleverly laid out office spaces and board room, the wonderful costumes highlighting important characters (Lady Macbeth’s red power suit symbolising the blood-stained hands that haunt her, Duncan’s regal purple suit making clear his authority, the earthy toned, less formal outfits of the witches) and the haunting makeup used for Banquo – came together to create a truly cohesive vision and story. Considering the magnitude of the Shakespeare’s tragedy Leaving Cert productions, this can be very challenging to achieve, so it speaks volumes to everyone involved just how successful the creative consistency was.

All in all, this was a wonderfully successful production, which everyone involved should be proud of.