Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Director Daniel Buckroyd here offers a fast-moving, modern-dress production of the Scottish Play.
Its story of occult prediction, ambition and murder is given a stark setting of sharp-angled ramps and rostra with a wedge pointing out into the audience and it approaches the play from an equally clear-cut perspective. It opens with a small child, right downstage on that thrust piece, playing with a toy tank in the spotlight, whilst behind him three witches reach out to control him.
These are not the bearded hags, as Banquo later describes them, but young women who appear later not only meeting in coven and calling up apparitions to predict Macbeth’s future but elevating Banquo’s ghost at a royal banquet. It is not the only occasion they infiltrate Macbeth’s household, though this may sometimes be the accidental effect of doubling in the case of the gender-blind casting of Noa Bodner as Macbeth’s man Seyton.
The rear of Juliet Shillingford's set is an ink-splodged image that suggests both hanging medieval banners and an artillery-blasted WW1 no-man’s-land, but it is suddenly invaded by a battle surge of very contemporary red-bereted soldiers.
The whole Scottish army, it seems, is made up of this tough elite force. And when a sergeant reports their victory under Macbeth’s generalship to King Duncan, he’s oozing blood from the wound on his belly.
Moray Treadwell, as the elderly ruler, mixes a natural authority with a joshing pretence that he is one of the boys. He knows how to court popularity without losing status.
This Macbeth is a brave soldier and a good general but no statesman. Though the witches promise him kingship, he doesn’t have a born regal charisma and it is not easy for the witches to make this loyal comrade’s ambition ruthless.
Stuart Laing’s Macbeth is a carefully thought out one, his resolution built by Esther Hall’s determined Lady Macbeth reaching a clear turning point. Best in his private moments, revealing his thoughts clearly, but his public persona is marred by often rushing to the end of sentences. (Fortunately this is not the kind of modern dress production that treats every public statement as a television opportunity.)
Intriguingly, though this production seem very aware of the text’s poetry, it often ignores its metre and emphasis, especially on line endings, gets in the way of a more natural delivery and misses the clarity of meaning that following the verse rhythms provides.
Laing usually avoids this when communicating directly with the audience and in fact the helter-skelter treatment of the verse matches Macbeth’s increasingly stressed state from when he abandons himself to violence.
The moment is clearly marked just after he has issued instructions for Banquo’s murder when he tells his wife “be innocent of the knowledge” and we see from her reaction that she knows he is now set on a course she can’t control. The beginning too, perhaps, of guilt in her, revealed later when she begins to sleepwalk.
In reacting to her death Laing delivers Macbeth’s reaction with stunned flatness. Now this Macbeth is on his own, clinging on to the witches’ prophecies as his only hope.
There is a solid Banquo from Simon Ludders and, as Macbeth’s nemesis Macduff, Nicholas Bailey is one of the better verse speakers. He is especially moving in his grief on hearing of the massacre of his family, and James Marlowe’s Malcolm is also clearly spoken in that scene in England. Georgina Sutton plays his wife, her perplexity at his flight sharply captured and matched by the innocence of the child actor playing her son—who also plays Banquo’s son and all the apparitions.
Those apparitions are cleverly handled by witches Noa Bodner, Rachel Donavan and Georgina Sutton who exert a baleful presence, though a musical treatment of their cauldron bubbling spell is over extended; however, since it follows the interval, it probably gives time for school audiences to settle down.
The school parties I saw it with were perhaps too well behaved—most of these youngsters, probably seeing the play for the first time, seemed held by it. Their biggest reaction, however, was in response to Christopher Price’s Porter, his graphic interpretation of sexual innuendo, the only comic moment in this relentless tragedy, clearly delighted them.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton