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Review: Macbeth at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

Lancaster-based theatre company imitating the dog has become a regular visitor to the Playhouse over the past few years, bringing with it singular, digital-led takes on pitch black tales from Conrad, Stoker and ‘father of the zombie film’ George A Romero.

Given its choice of source material, perhaps it’s not surprising that this season’s focus on the Bard has skipped over lighter fare like the Merry Wives of Windsor and The Comedy of Errors to alight on the stygian, supernatural tale of Macbeth.

The company’s trio of artistic directors – Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright – have certainly been bloody, bold and resolute when it comes to their vision for an imitating the dog version of the play, described in the opening titles which flash on the set’s giant corrugated screen wall as ‘based on the text by…’ Shakespeare.

That ‘based on’ might stir some misgivings. But in fact, although it starts with a modern and somewhat meandering meta introduction which set the scene in pretty colourful language, the production is still constructed around the bulk of Shakespeare’s original 1606 text, delivered with particular clarity by Maia Tamrakar’s ‘Lady M’ (even if her character has a more unexpected story arc).

Not a lot else will look familiar, however.

The cast may wear kilts of sorts, yet this 'Scottish play' is set not north of the border but – it’s never really explained why - in a fictional English freeport which from the disparate cultural references appears part-Hong Kong, part-Harwich. The febrile action takes place in dingy nightspots, dark car parks, old garage forecourts and at abandoned golf ranges.

It all screams noirish, nightmarish Blade Runner-meets-LA Confidential-meets Eminem video, albeit one directed with expletive-riddled excess by Guy Ritchie.

Above: Benjamin Westerby (Macbeth) and Maia Tamrakar (Lady Macbeth). Top: The Macbeth cast. Photos by Ed Waring.

And indeed, the Blade Runner reference is spelt out in one of the sly, conspiratorial asides to the audience from the ‘Witch Ensemble’ (Laura Atherton, Stefan Chanyaem and Matt Prendergast in Heath Ledger/Joker-style make-up) who act as capering narrators and operators of the company’s trademark live camera feeds, and in between take on the myriad of characters who swirl around the leads.

Amid this we meet Macbeth (Benjamin Westerby, who has presence), a young, street-smart, ambitious if small-time hoodlum who, urged on by ‘Lady M’, becomes embroiled in a very violent power struggle within the gang run by crime lord Duncan.

The Macbeths are, we are told, bound together as youthful victims of a dysfunctional and abusive ‘care’ system.

But if the backstory is an attempt to elicit sympathy for the pair, their demeanour and subsequent actions are likely to soon squander the residual goodwill of even the softest of hearts.

It's strikingly stylised and inventive, as you’d expect from imitating the dog, and after more than 300 years of Macbeth stage productions, it’s certainly a different take on Shakespeare’s enduring tale of vaulting ambition and lust for power, toxic masculinity and guilt.

But at the same time, the screens that allow you to see the Macbeths’ emotions writ large also act as a barrier, making it more difficult to engage with them, and that feeling of remoteness is augmented by the chilly, clinical, dystopian world the characters inhabit.


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