William Shakespeare
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park

Production photo

This is only the second Open Air staging of the Scottish play since the venue was launched 75 years ago with an alfresco matinee of Twelfth Night in the Regent’s Park rose garden.

Although Shakespeare is the house playwright, the first Macbeth did not arrive until six decades later when Bill Gaunt directed an eerie but elegant version performed on a pentagonal rostrum.

Revived, it could have provided this 75th Anniversary Season with a dark, challenging opener. But Edward Kemp’s turbulent new production, inspired (he says) by the political background to the Gunpowder Plot, is a gritty poke in the eye for would-be Regent’s Park celebrants, while offering an abundance of blood, noise and dashing about.

On the eve of Duncan’s murder we have an incongruous courtly dance under fairy-lights, and in due course a full-blown, red carpet coronation procession for Macbeth and his queen. These help give the play a much-needed touch of spectacle. But on the first night a wood pigeon, landing in the middle of a tense scene, proved more of a diversion for an audience looking for a chuckle.

The production is set among the dumped remains of rusting and vandalised shipping containers, which serve as the walls of Dunsinane and as hiding places for the Weird Sisters. Downstage a large puddle too often gets in the way of the action — it seems to have been placed there primarily to provide primitive bathroom facilities for Macbeth and his lady-wife during their hand-washing scene.

The period is vaguely late 20th century, with the sound of overflying military aircraft, the entry of a Jeep with blazing headlights, and sudden fiery explosions from the wings that tell us there’s a war on.

But the combatants are a rabble of Scottish squaddies with red bobble hats and SAS commandos in dark red berets — among them Peter Duncan’s fine Macduff and the striking presence of Mark Meadows’ Banquo — while David Peart’s luckless King Duncan, costumed operetta style, is accompanied by courtiers in plain 19th century jackets with stitched frogging.

Antony Byrne’s Macbeth is a power-hungry politician rather than the bloodthirsty villain of reputation — a dead-ringer for the late lamented Prince Albert. Or so it seems attired in what could be a Saxe-Coburg court tunic, fastened by a chequered sash. But despite these overtones of Victorian royal romance, he gives a smouldering performance, powerfully spoken, that finally blazes in the crucial fifth act.

As his consort Sarah Woodhead makes a tall, handsome figure in a satin bathrobe like some Hollywood heroine of the 1930s. But from the moment of her first entry, reading Macbeth’s missive in a harsh voice, she seems to be vying with the Weird Sisters for prophetic ghoulishness, perhaps a characteristic already there in Shakespeare’s text, but usually coloured at first by housewifely ambition.

The stage design by Jon Bausor brings on three blazing oil-drums, giving each of the witches her own personal cauldron to top up with bits of finger cut from a cadaver, as well as the eye of newt and toe of frog; while Jason Taylor’s atmospheric lighting makes a unique contribution to the unfolding drama.

As the sun goes down over the second half of the evening, the lights come up on stage: but not from the rig around the back of the theatre. Instead the actors are lit by strongly focused side-lighting from the wings, isolating them against an unilluminated backdrop.

Director Kemp brilliantly plays on this effect, holding back the main lighting until the moment when the liberating armies begin their march on Dunsinane (albeit, minus the Birnam Wood tree branches), advancing down the auditorium steps, lit by powerful shafts of light from the rear.

The production will not amuse those Open Air theatregoers who prefer being entertained with witty, colourful productions of the Comedies and the Romances, and perhaps a revival of Henry V. And I cannot pretend that Kemp’s production, with its plodding speechy longeurs and muddled chronology, is wholly convincing. But with its atmospheric staging, deft use of music (Gary Yershon) and movement (Ayse Tashkiran), this was not an entirely wasted evening.

Reviewer: John Thaxter

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