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Review: Macbeth at Shakespeare North Playhouse ***

There’s certainly food for thought – albeit with a side order of frustration - in ETT’s new touring production of Macbeth, premiering at the co-producing Shakespeare North Playhouse.

And the exhortation to be ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ has been seized with vigour in a contemporary exploration of Shakespeare’s supernatural-infused tale of vaunting ambition and the corrupting influence of power.

‘Bold’ comes early on in a decision to ditch the Bard’s own opening for an imagined scene centring on a trio of Lancashire women accused of witchcraft. St Helens’ Isabel Robey gets a namecheck, but I rather like to think of them as the (real) Rainford three.

The hysterical denouncements of their misogynistic accusers hint at a possible spotlight being shone on the wider plight of women in a patriarchal society (reflected after all in Shakespeare’s tragedies where female characters may play a key role in driving the plot, yet so often appear only as devious and/or mad, or tragic innocents and passive victims).

But alas it’s a spotlight that soon seems to fade, along with the presence of the weird sisters, in the stygian gloom. Or should that be Glamis?

It’s one of many ideas and dramatic devices which director Richard Twyman presents in the production, some of which are intriguing, and some of which feel incongruous.

In the latter camp is the scene where Macduff discovers the self-exiled Malcolm dancing around his temporary English lodgings crooning a karaoke version of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.

No, me neither.

Like Lancaster-based theatre company imitating the dog, which presented a noirish modern take on the tragedy Liverpool last season, this production makes extensive use of technology to create multi-visual angles and layers within the storytelling.

It’s most satisfying when it allows us, early on, to eavesdrop on Lady Macbeth’s (Laura Elsworthy) fierce, whispered encouragement of her partner-in-crime behind the scenes that leads to Duncan’s (Ross Waiton) bloody dispatch.

Above: Macbeth (Mike Nolan) and Lady Macbeth (Laura Elsworthy). Top: Mike Nolan as Macbeth. Photos by The Other Richard.

Cameras are also used in celebrations – live broadcasting (on a pair of screens above the stage) the drunken party at the Macbeths’ which precedes murder, as well as in surveillance by a tyrannical regime.

When Macbeth (Mike Noble) imagines a spectral dagger before him, the audience sees the same vision in grainy footage, while Banquo’s ghost appears at dinner – a meal augmented by the recruitment of audience members from the stalls – in a similar way.

Elsewhere, Macbeth’s increasingly manic mental gymnastics become a Romero-style screen fever dream.

More prosaically, the screens also prove useful to those sitting to the sides of the end-on stage where sightlines are so sharp that at times the action can be heard but not seen around the pillars of the theatre’s newly installed ‘frons scenae’ backdrop.

With the weird sisters physically AWOL, their ‘double double’ warnings are instead turned into a Burns’ Night address to a haggis, a decision that is audacious but actually strangely effective.

And ahead of that, there’s a clever visual moment where, as Macbeth compares himself to Marc Antony, Waiton rises from Duncan’s winding sheet shroud to reform as Banquo’s murderer.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest, sharpest tragedy, and it needs to maintain good pacing to drive the increasingly febrile atmosphere in which loyalties shift and events spin out of control.

But while there’s plenty to appreciate in watching the desperate unravelling of Noble’s Herod-like thane-turned-monarch, his delivery can at times be so speedy (and soft) that his lines become practically inaudible.

Elsewhere Guy Rhys presents a gruff and staunchly resolute Macduff, and Leo Wan – an eloquent speaker of Shakespeare’s prose and verse - delivers hugely enjoyable light relief as both Ross and the voluble, drunken Porter.

There’s also a confident and natural performance from the young actor (sadly unnamed in the programme) who plays Fleance and the young Macduff.


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