Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017
Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland. The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds. There is more to them than their doll-like exterior. Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place. It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent. Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic. Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?
I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters. Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way. Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.
These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.
Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words. Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments. She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible. Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches. But that’s just me.
Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up. His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield. The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint. I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.
Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out. Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone. It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out! Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us. Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on. Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.
Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt. Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself. I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.
Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.
Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip. Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own. The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.
A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them. I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun… I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.