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Review: Macbeth at the Epstein Theatre ***1/2

Liverpool actor Daniel Taylor is carving a successful parallel career as a director/producer of powerful and plain-speaking stage classics.

And more power to his elbow.

Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet comes his third annual Shakespeare at the Epstein Theatre – this time an outing for the Bard’s ‘Scottish play’.

Taylor has happily avoided the temptation to impose a modern quirky concept on the story and instead opted for a bloody, bold and resolutely straightforward, muscular Macbeth.

As always, there’s an absolute commitment to clarity of delivery, from the messenger who brings news of Macbeth’s triumph in battle to the premonitions of the ‘Weird Sisters’ to the moment Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane, which makes the plot and action pleasingly accessible to all.

While the set is a basic backdrop for the action, a dark and troubling atmosphere is created by gloomy lighting and a soundscape of recorded clanks and live music, while the mists that swirl around the excellent Weird Sisters (including the young Elinor Jones) are so dense they threaten to engulf the entire auditorium at times. I haven’t inhaled that much stage smoke since the discos of the 1980s.

Above: The Weird Sisters. Top: Sean Jones as Macbeth. Photos by Andrew AB.

Taylor has also assembled a solid ensemble cast, some of them actors he has worked with on other projects including his regular tours with Blood Brothers.

Most however are new to his Shakespearean productions, although Lenny Wood returns after appearing in last year’s repertory double bill, and again shows his versatility, here both as the noble Ross and also as the Glamis’ porter made loquacious by liquor.

And there’s an excellent double-hander from Tim Lucas as Malcolm and Ethan Holmes’ Macduff as the latter is informed that all his ‘pretty ones’ have been brutally murdered at the behest of Macbeth.

At the heart of the production are real life husband and wife Sean Jones and Tracy Spencer-Jones as the plotting Macbeths, power and greed corroding them step by bloody step.

Tracy Spencer-Jones (left) in Macbeth. Photo by Andrew AB

Spencer-Jones strikes a statuesque figure as the brutally-ambitious power behind the throne who emboldens her vacillating husband to ‘screw your courage to the sticking place’, but who slowly disintegrates while the bodies pile up.

But what of the titular Macbeth? To steal a line from another of the Bard’s tragedies – ay, there’s the rub.

Because for me at least, Jones’s Macbeth appears too slight a dramatic figure (and, physically, one swamped by their costume) to truly convince.

His murderous Thane feels more like a street scrapper than a morally complex, conflicted leader of men overwhelmed by a vaunting ambition.

Where he does really shine however is in Macbeth’s quiet, contemplative moments; both the ‘I am in blood steeped’ speech of Act 3, and his final musings, after learning of Lady Macbeth’s death, that ‘life’s but a walking shadow’ are beautifully measured, and compelling in their delivery.

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