If there isn't already an unspoken rule that some Shakespeare plays ought to go untouched, then perhaps this woefully misjudged production of Macbeth will be the catalyst: English Touring Theatre have succeeded in sucking all life, tension and integrity out of the famed Scottish play, leaving a confused and pretentious mark on what sadly could have been a remarkable classic.
The choice to set any Shakespeare play in a modern era is a precarious one: while on occasion such a shift to the work can enlighten new meaning and perspectives, a poor adaptation of Shakespeare can be nothing short of painfully frustrating. Sadly, Shakespeare North Playhouse's production of Macbeth falls firmly into the latter, full to the brim with baffling directorial choices, an air of unpleasant pretentiousness and a tone that is near undecipherable - what results is nothing short of a bloody mess.
Lady Macbeth vapes. That alone quite aptly sums up the greatest flaw of this production; an aspiration to be edgy, different and modern in every way possible, yet failing to ever truly justify any of the bizarre creative decisions and alterations that have been questionably made. Add to the list a tonally questionable karaoke scene that immediately follows the death of Macduff's son, and a moment in which Macbeth slow dances to Louis Armstrong with his wife. A picture soon forms of a show trying to be different... yet to what effect? Unfortunately none of these changes contribute anything to a fresh retelling of the much known story, and rather work at odds with the writing: Richard Twyman's direction almost seems in a conflict for attention, seeking to boast a flashy distraction rather than complimenting Shakespeare's brilliant work. What this unfortunately results in, is a show that radiates a faux artsy-ness that fails to come across as neither intelligent nor impressive, but rather a ridiculous show of needlessly extravagant storytelling.
Equally perplexing is the great sense of ambiguity that hinders much of the production - the time period, characterisations and tone are all inconsistent and unclear, turning a play that once felt sharply focused and precisely crafted into a soupy concoction of confusion. From the awkward attempts at humour and audience interaction, to the gory and brutal action, the template tragedy becomes a cross-bred mongrel of too many genres. Within the scenes in which the direction doubled down on gritty realism, the play did occasionally face success: a great deal of praise has to go to fight director Kevin McCurdy, whose impressively choreographed moments of violence shone amongst weaker elements, however, this did little to combat the misguided tone previously established.
Shakespeare Playhouse North's newly built Frons Scenea is undeniably gorgeous, with intricate design and delicate details. Yet, one can't help but be somewhat disappointed, as this beautiful facade has been hidden between a rather mundane set by Basia Binkowska that does little to elevate the story but rather further removes it from its Shakespearean setting. Two video projection screens (with projection design by Will Duke) mask the elaborate set, and are used throughout to broadcast live handheld shot footage - much like in the recently closed revival of Oklahoma! or in Ivo Van Hove's 2020 production of West Side Story.
While this aesthetically driven decision works in the two aforementioned productions, here the effect feels contrived; there is no resounding need for intimacy in these moments, and the camera seems to be thrown in simply for its own sake rather than dictated by the necessity of the story. Despite this, the contrary equally stifles this production, as the set design too frequently takes the most obvious of representations (as Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane a tree is slowly lowered onto the stage, and as Malcolm gives a rousing speech devoted to Scotland, patriotic images of Scottish highlands are projected onto the back walls). Perhaps this symbolism could have been impactful, however the obviousness of the visual choices made contrasted against the serious way in which they were presented created a whiplash that if anything, was mildly humorous.
If there was any doubt that this production arrives with a heavy handed serving of self-indulgence, it can most clearly be seen in the rewritten text. If there's one thing that can be universally agreed, it is that Shakespeare was a master of his craft, so to not only re-write, but also remove scenes and onstage characters is nothing short of bold. Unfortunately, these changes do not work. The most significant change come with the witches - once an integral part of the story, conveying themes of superstition, fate and destiny - yet here there appears to be an aversion to ever having the witches on stage delivering lines. Their lines are delivered over speakers and through other characters, yet Shakespeare's famed trio is almost entirely absent in this production. The opening of the show equally feels muddled, welcoming the audience with a scene set in a courthouse discussing Lancashire witch trials - a take on the witches that could have been interesting, yet a lack of commitment to the idea beyond the first 2 minutes of the runtime made the scene feel more like an anomalous fragment rather than a meaningful take on the scene.
While I wish I could praise this production for its boldness, the piece feels so directionless that the many failed ideas that are thrown at the wall seem entirely unjustifiable at both extremes of the spectrum: at one end harshly literal readings of the text; at the other attempted 'new takes' that have the lasting impression of farcical absurdity. At its best this makes for a misguided and embarrassing take on Macbeth, that one may derive ironic humour from, however at its worst, this is a production that actively tries to warp Shakespeare's magnum opus for little sake beyond what feels like a directorial power-trip. Alas, maybe it's for the best that we put radical interpretations of Macbeth 'to bed, to bed, to bed'.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by The Other Richard