West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Macbeth, Artistic Director Ian Brown's fourth Shakespeare production for the WYP, is probably the Bard's most accessible tragedy. Short, sharp and relatively simple, it has always been a canny choice for theatres seeking to put bums on seats. But it's the play's uncanny elements that can cause problems, and a production stands or falls by how successfully directors and designers mediate a seventeenth century concept of the supernatural for a twenty-first century audience.
The good news is that Brown's Macbeth is pacy without being heavily cut, gimmick-free and consistently well-acted by a cast of twelve. The bad news is that the small cast too often look stranded on the Quarry Theatre's enormous stage (it's no accident that this most claustrophobic of plays works best in a smaller venue), and that, without Avshalom Caspi's music and Mic Pool's atmospheric soundscape, there would be precious few frissons of unease. The Weird Sisters are played by two men and a woman, apparently for no other reason than that the men also called upon to double as Fleance and one of the Murderers, and are disappointingly lacking in menace.
In the title role is David Westhead, a familiar face from TV whose stocky frame and grey hair make him entirely believable as a ruthless head of state, less so as a warrior. He gives a workmanlike performance but never quite convinces us that his mind is "full of scorpions". Lady Macbeth (Michelle Fairley, who bears a striking resemblance to Jane Lapotaire) is every inch a queen from the moment she sets foot on stage, a devoted wife willing to risk damnation in order to make her husband king. Andy Hockley doubles as an avuncular Duncan and a comically inebriated Porter, Matthew Flynn as Banquo and the Doctor, but the standout performance is that of Antony Byrne, who was so impressive as AandBC's Henry VIII in Stratford last year. His Macduff is the most moving I've seen for a long time.
Ruari Murchison's set, an expanse of black cinder-like material pierced by two iron staircases, is suggestive of a bleak post-industrial landscape murkily lit by a cross-shaped panel at the rear of the stage. The play's religious aspects are further underlined by a gigantic cross-cum-dagger which descends from the flies when Macbeth becomes king. The costumes are a curious mix of the Middle Ages (Lady Macbeth celebrates her coronation in a chain-mail gown complete with train) and Army Surplus greatcoats without which no modern Macbeth seems to be complete.
Although the production lacks the flair of Brown's Hamlet of a few years ago, it has the virtue of clarity and certainly succeeded in holding the attention of the many young people in the audience. One can only speculate on how much more successful this Macbeth might have been had it been staged in the more intimate setting of the Courtyard Theatre.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 24th March
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson