Macbeth, Athenaeum Limelight Players, Warminster

revu-macbethTHE forces that drive an ordinary soldier and his socially ambitious wife into a downward spiral through assassination and murder to brutal tyranny and suicide are given not one but two new twists in Graham Thomas production of the Scottish play at the Athenaeum, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages project.

ALP was one of just 100 non-professional groups around the country selected for the 2015 project, which includes productions on their home stages, showcase performances at top regional theatres and the possibility of taking the play to the RSC’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer.

In his programme notes, the director explains that he had wanted to direct Macbeth since he played Banquo about 15 years ago. So when he heard about the Open Stages programme he began to put his ideas down on paper. And what emerged was a very specific vision of the play, set firmly in 21st century Scotland, with the tensions and divisions of Scottish nationalism and the ubiquity of mobile phones, and tablets. But he also gives a physical presence to the forces which corrupt and ultimately kill the Macbeths as a dominatrix Hecate (Jackie Brown).

It is a daring and mostly successful interpretation in which both General Macbeth (Richard Clarke) and Lady Macbeth (Tanya Stockting) are in some ways as much the victims of a totally malign fate as Banquo or Lady Macduff and her children.

Hecate, in scarlet bustier with black leggings and high black boots, is a sardonic presence who is rarely off the stage – her hollow laughter a comment on the frailties of man, and her voice, by turns rasping and seductive, terrifies her victims and leads them astray. At the start of the play, she takes three ordinary waitresses, preparing to set the table for a meal to celebrate the newly independent Scotland’s victory over the English, and re-makes them as wild-haired witches.

The director and his technical team make optimum use of the various digital media at their disposal, including a big screen, Skype and the familiar bleeps, pips and jingles of text messages, emails and incoming phone calls. The use of a mobile phone for the anonymous friend who warns Lady Macduff (Hayley Shepherd) that she must flee with her family is particularly effective. You feel her isolation in a way that is missing when the man is actually there – you are always left wondering why he doesn’t take them with him. Here, she is truly abandoned.

This version sees Duncan as Scottish First Minister who is crowned King after the victory, assuming all the glory for himself – fans of Scottish nationalism may not enjoy this interpretation of the kingmaking ambitions of their leaders!

The updating stumbles a bit in the murder of Banquo (Ian Morrison), where references to his going for a drive sit oddly with one of the murderers talking about him going about a mile from the castle. The ghost sequence at the royal banquet is highly effective, with the ghastly figure of the dead Banquo moved like a puppet by the weird sisters.

In a generally strong cast, Tanya Stockting’s Lady Macbeth is outstanding, sexually powerful, fearless and passionate – and her collapse into guilt-ridden sleep-walking is all the more terrible to see. Richard Clarke’s Macbeth develops steadily from the bluff returning soldier to the haunted tyrant.

Robert Billen is a charismatic Macduff, anguished and driven – the final brutally physical hand-to-hand fight between Macduff and Macbeth looks very dangerous!

This was a very interesting interpretation of a familiar play, with the famous speeches well handled – I particularly admired the decision to have Macbeth deliver the “Out, out, brief candle” speech directly over the body of Lady Macbeth.


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