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MACBETH (solo) Wandsworth Arts Fringe 2023

We seem to be in the midst of a one-person show trend. Sheridan Smith does it for Shirley Valentine and Eddie Izzard did it for Great Expectations. Now the hugely impressive, classically trained actor and voice coach, Paul Goodwin offers us his one-man Macbeth. It’s a fifty-minute dramatic monologue that condenses and crystallises the tragedy of Macbeth into a non-stop stream of consciousness roller coaster which I found utterly compelling.

MACBETH (solo). Photo by Mark Duffield.
MACBETH (solo). Photo by Mark Duffield..

The word immersive is overused but this really is immersive in the best sense of the word. We enter into the mind of Macbeth and share his innermost thoughts and feelings. This is the closest one will ever get into the mind of a narcissistic psychopathic killer. We see and feel the remorseless logic of his will to power. And his devastating realisation that once you start killing you just can’t stop because there’s always someone else that needs to be got rid of.

In terms of psychologising and the drive to dominate, Shakespeare did it both earlier and better than Nietzche and Freud. Goodwin’s astonishing performance dramatises these most primordial of human emotions before our very eyes. I was in the front row literally centimetres from Goodwin and I was absolutely convinced that this man was a cold-hearted killer. An actor that can conjure up such mesmerising spectres is really someone special. All of Goodwin’s decades of experience in the theatre – whether as an actor, teacher, or voice coach – culminate in a production and performance of astonishing dramatic range, nuance and ultimately tragic self-deception. Macbeth is ultimately the more deceived to use Larkin’s phrase.

Goodwin was a teacher in Moscow until the invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022. His way of coping with this war was to turn to Shakespeare. He knew Macbeth well and always wanted to do something with it. It was in Scotland appropriately during the pandemic that he returned to the Scottish play. His version would be a condensed fifty-minute monologue. To take the piece to a deeper level of meaning Goodwin has teamed up with the Ukrainian composer and sound designer Dmitry Saratsky to provide a vividly evocative soundscape which enhances Goodwin’s voice but crucially never detracts from the primacy of the spoken word. I take it that Macbeth, as it were represents, the Putin gamble to grab Ukraine, as Macbeth took the gamble to murder Duncan in his bed and seize the Crown of Scotland.

Life imitates art as they say and last night I couldn’t help connecting the moment when Burnham Wood should come to Dunsinane with the march of the Prigozhin’s Wagner Group on Moscow. The Putin connection is made in Goodwin’s choice of costume. He wears khaki combat fatigues and black army boots, with a knife in his holster. This Macbeth / Putin / Soldier image is extremely powerful and Goodwin again and again embodies it with visceral realism and pyschologising force. He struts the theatrical space like a caged tiger. As one would expect from a voice coach he has a wonderful command of the vocal range. He modulates his voice subtly to hit just the right tone, pitch and timbre. For example, he delivers the haunting line “Macbeth doth murder sleep” with a descending diminuendo so that we have to listen hard to catch the faintly falling echo of those shattering words. Macbeth will never sleep well ever again. It’s a devastating moment of self-knowledge which comes late all too late for Macbeth.

If Goodwin’s voice is commanding and conniving then his body language or what you might call his physicality is nothing short of jaw-droppingly overwhelming. And here one should acknowledge the support and encouragement of Cheska Bridge the movement specialist. She has clearly empowered Goodwin to find new ways to express his formidable talents. Goodwin is all in. This is total acting. Goodwin gives his all. The sweat was pouring from him. At one point when Macbeth is fighting with himself Goodwin repeatedly hits his forehead with his knuckles such that one can hear the sound of bone on skull. Goodwin is totally committed to his art. He has obviously spent hours, days and weeks preparing for this moment. He has left no stone unturned. He wants to give the best possible dramatisation that he can make and to do so he will go to great lengths to find ways to convey Macbeth’s thoughts, feelings and emotions.

I was particularly struck by the way he used what I can only describe as the De Niro smile / stare switch. I mean the way Robert De Nero changes in a heartbeat from a smile to a menacing stare. Goodwin does this when he shows Macbeth switching from self-pity to megalomania. It’s a brilliantly profound moment because it captures in facial twitches what are deep inner workings of the deranged psychopath. I don’t want to be too literal here because I want audiences to see the show for themselves so I’ll just mention two more examples of Goodwin’s ability to give us Macbeth. First is a moment of triumph. Like Napoleon, Macbeth crowns himself. Goodwin does this and sits on his throne. This is his moment of greatest self-deluding narcissism. Goodwin nods to the four corners of the auditorium in triumphalist self-satisfaction. Again he deploys the De Niro smile. A truly terrifying moment of grotesque power mania. The second moment is when Macbeth finally gets some self-knowledge and realises the hopelessness of his situation. Goodwin delivers the haunting lines “Life is a tale told by an idiot , full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” with a tenderness and sensitivity which is tragic in the deepest meaning of that word.

Miraculously Goodwin takes us with him so that we empathise with Macbeth without ever sympathising with him. The distinction is crucial and it is one that Goodwin makes with exquisite subtlety and finesse. I hope I have made it clear why I think this play matters and why it ought to be seen.

5 Star Rating

Review by John O’Brien

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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