Macbeth, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

THE launch of a new company is always exciting. And the Tobacco Factory company, based in the arts centre in the old Wills factory in Bedminster, hits the ground running, making its debut with a striking Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy is so full of famous phrases and quotes that it makes huge demands on the cast not to fall into well-worn speech patterns. This story of vaulting ambition and blood-soaked tyranny also includes scenes that are so famous (even to those who may not have seen the play) that directors feel compelled to try to find a way of staging them that is not tired and over-familiar.

Adele Thomas has some very good ideas, helped by the strange and atmospheric set design by Anisha Fields, the urgent and sometimes terrifying soundscape by Max Pappenheim and the ferocious and alienating lighting by Matthew Graham.

Outstanding among the new ideas are having the three witches (Maggie Bain, Cait Davis and Laura Waldren) speak among themselves in Gaelic. This gives these “weird sisters” a feeling of unknowableness that immediately takes them beyond the cliche of “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble.”

Similarly the black “charcoal” flooring evokes a burned and war-scorched landscape, while its soggy bounciness and ability to absorb sound make movement both unnatural and eerily silent.

A clear commitment to gender-balanced casting generally works well, but the casting of the Porter as a woman dressed and speaking like a genteel chambermaid from Upstairs Downstairs misfires. There is no reason why this character could not be played by a woman, but it needs to be loud and boorish with a crude humour unfettered by booze.

There is a palpable chemistry between Jonathan McGuinness’s Macbeth and Katy Stephens’ Lady Macbeth, but there is never any doubt which is the stronger. McGuinness portrays a successful soldier, caught out by the witches and their unexpected predictions, swept up by ambition but lacking the tenacity to seize his destiny – ultimately this Macbeth is a weak man who takes the inevitable path to tyranny and murder. Even as he battles to the death with Macduff (a genuinely scary fight) he is blind to his wickedness or the hopelessness of his position.

It is his unflinching wife who drives him on to achieve his promised kingdom, but it is her sharp intelligence and imagination that bring her to guilt and an understanding of the price they have paid – and must pay – and to her own lonely death. Stephens’ sleep-walking scene was compelling and painful.

Aaron Anthony is an outstanding Banquo – too often a cardboard goodie, this was a flesh and blood soldier and father, an upright, honest man who sees but cannot prevent the doom that awaits him, and his old friend. The twilit moment in which the murdered Banquo rose from the black ground was a chilling foretaste of the haunted banquet to come.

Joseph Tweedale is a powerful Macduff and his exchange with Malcolm (Jack Riddiford) was unusually convincing This wordy scene can be impenetrably boring, but here you understood the fears of this naive young prince that Macbeth was sending his spies to kidnap or murder him.

Among the smaller parts, Simon Armstrong was a notably deadpan Seton, and Maggie Bain was painfully brave as Lady Macduff.

The movement in this taut production is effective, particularly with the hands, which speak of the characters’ desires, fears, guilt, rage and turmoil. But, even in such a blood-stained story, there is so much blood that it becomes a visual distraction. It doesn’t need cleaning up, just toning down!


Pictures by Mark Dawson Photography
Macbeth continues at the Tobacco Factory until 7th April.

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