I think I have seen Macbeth more than any other play.  In truth I’m not sure why.  It’s by no means a favourite play.  I wonder if there is the potential in the story to be a great play, and I’m always searching for that.  From a sparse but interesting performance at the Reading Hexagon in the early 80s, through to Alan Cumming’s superb one man mental-health-patient-lives-Macbeth adaptation in Glasgow, and most recently Kenneth Branagh’s thunderous adaptation for MIF 2013, I’ve seen a variety of interpretations.

The problem with reinterpreting any Shakespeare play is that whatever you do, it’s easier to cut than to add.  So when you try to take the play in a different, more contemporary direction, there’s always the risk that the road runs out.  And that’s what happens here.

The concept is strong.  The set is grey, industrial and tapers away to the rear (as in the photograph).  There is constant movement in a predominantly cross shape, front to rear, and across from doors down both sides and a moving rear section. Dance and movement play a key part, supported by music that is underground, industrial.  The overall feeling is of 1984 or Bladerunner.  This is some of the best lighting I have seen, recreating the artificial feel of an underground bunker.

Anna Maxwell Martin (Lady Macbeth) in Macbeth. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith (2)But the vision doesn’t quite fit with the text.  We end up with two very strong, topical and important themes, but they don’t connect.  Like digging a tunnel from two ends and finding they don’t meet in the middle.  In the first half the action is driven by Lady Macbeth, superbly played by Anna Maxwell Martin.  She is cool, in control, driven and at one with the contemporary music score.  Macbeth himself appears a mere puppet to her ambitions; everything that happens to him is a catalyst to Lady Macbeth’s actions.   She drives Macbeth and she drives the play.

In the last third, it’s all about what’s happening in Macbeth’s mind, and it’s powerful. The weird sisters and Banquo’s ghost take over his thoughts, and he loses control.  He becomes obsessed with fate and the supernatural.  Clever use of movement and dance drive home his mental confusion. Visually, on the stage, the effect is so dominant, and the loss of control so complete.

But in the middle there is a transition and the text can’t support it.  Lady Macbeth effectively disappears and leaves a void.

I wanted to love this play because there is so much about it that is excellent. But for all its brilliance, it just doesn’t end up as a single unified piece.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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