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Theatre review: Macbeth (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Jonathan Schofield finds shock and awe but highly recommends the latest version of the Scottish play

Written by . Published on March 5th 2009.

Theatre review: Macbeth (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Shakespeare’s tragedies grab you by the throat and throw you on the floor with the force of language and the depth of emotion.

Good Shakespeare directors should do the same.

Matthew Dunster manages to do this with Macbeth at the Royal Exchange. His use of modern war – any modern war in terms of language, technology and weapons – is a clever device, especially his depiction of its effects on the civilian population.

He lays it on spectacularly thick.

The play opens with the witches, the Weird Sisters, as children. Unaffected by conflict they lounge in their bedroom, in the safety of their home, reciting the play’s opening nursery rhyme lines of: ‘When shall we three meet again?/ In thunder, lightning or in rain/ When the hurly burly’s done/When the battle’s lost and won.’

Instantly soldiers arrive and with extraordinary violence the children’s home is violated, and then they are. The children become victims of the grotesque abuse meted out in all the seedy little conflicts taking place across the world.

This tragedy is inconsequential to the main character, Macbeth: it is a mere inevitability of the great themes of war and history that he wants to bestride. Ambition, realpolitik, and opportunism are what he cares about in Shakespeare’s eternal exposé of what makes a tyrant tick.

Another example of the playwright’s skill is in capturing the paranoia of the tyrant, the endless suspicion of betrayal that every dictator seems to carry. With King Duncan murdered, his sons exiled and the throne seized, Macbeth, instead of being content, sees enemies everywhere. He murders the family of Macduff, kills his best friend Banquo, and becomes alienated from his wife, a woman he truly loves. He may be king but as he says: ‘To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.’

Nicholas Gleaves

Dunster’s production superbly brings out the character of the tyrant – and the henchmen that urge them on, in this case Lady Macbeth. He illustrates again the astonishing prescience of a man dead more than three hundred years before Hitler and Stalin and the other mass-murderers of the twentieth century.

And in that there’s a concern about this Royal Exchange production of Macbeth. The direction is so overwhelming, the actors become a little lost.

Nicholas Gleaves as Macbeth lacks authority in the first half of the play although he improves in the second. Lady Macbeth is good when occupying the stage on her own but fades otherwise. Sometimes you wonder if all the TV actors have been taught to project their voice for live acting.

Rebecca Callard, Niamh Quinn and Alexandra Kenyon

The best performers were Christopher Colquhoun as Banquo, John Macmillan as Malcolm and Rebecca Callard as the lead Weird Sister (she also does a good Lady Macduff too). Callard is electric, a picture of vengeance, anger and sadness for the loss of her childhood, innocence and life. You can’t keep your eyes off her. Given she’s a 33-year-old actress playing a teen in late adolescence, it’s all the more remarkable.

Otherwise the play literally is the thing (to mix up Shakespeare’s works). Dunster occasionally overdoes it with one of Banquo’s murderers talking in some odd language that may have been East European or Klingon, and there’s a needless Obama ‘joke’ at the end; but most excesses such as the referencing of contemporary music with Pink’s ‘So What’ and the use of monitors are spot on.

And the thing races by.

Nicholas Gleaves

If you have a kid over 15 who thinks Shakespeare is boring and who would much rather blast away on Killzone 2 on Playstation 3 then bring them here. This production will shock them to the core, with its visceral, mesmeric ebb and flow whilst also teaching them a little about the use of the English language and the pain caused when men seek glory through primitive means.

This is Shakespeare simple and awful and wonderful. If you get chance, go.

Let’s finish with perhaps the most stirring, clever and bleak set of lines about the human condition ever written: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of a sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s wasteful and fruitless ambition summed up and blown away in 16 words.

Macbeth is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 11 April. Box office: 0161 833 9833.

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