Filter and The Tobacco Factory
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Where to start?
This is my fifth or sixth attempt to start this review of Filter's Macbeth. The trouble is that there are so many possible starting points: the electronic music performed on stage by the cast; the use of modern technology such as baby monitors, telephones and radio reports on the battle; the very verse-orientated speaking of the text; the cutting or shortening of many scenes and the loss of some characters and the merging of others; the heavy use of symbolism; the inclusion of such disparate items as Brodie's Notes on the character of Lady Macbeth and a children's game (in the banquet scene where Banquo's Ghost appears—here essentially a kids' party with goodie bags and crisps!); and gender-blind casting.
Of course all of these things—except the study notes and the kids' game—are not unheard of in modern Shakespeare productions, nor are the bare stage and the use of casual clothing, but the profusion of different approaches did not only create some confusion in my mind about where to start writing but it could easily lead to confusion in an audience unfamiliar with the play. Indeed, the most frequent comment I heard afterwards, from an audience which had a large proportion of students, was along the lines of "I'm not sure I would have understood it if I didn't already know the play."
Ferdy Roberts (Macbeth) and Poppy Miller (Lady Macbeth) spoke the verse beautifully with a clarity that many actors could learn from and, for me, this pure and unadulterated Shakespeare was the highlight of the production.
Filter aims, the programme notes say, to make "a Macbeth which is playful as well as engaging with the darker aspects of Shakespeare's play" and this is, in fact, Filter's Macbeth rather than Shakespeare's, not as far away from the original as Ionesco's Macbett, Jary's Ubu Roi or Teatr Biuro Podròzy's Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?, but nonetheless "based on" or "a version of" rather than "a production of."
At one point about a third of the way through, when Filter's own reading segued once more into a clear and powerful rendering of one of the great soliloquies, I started to see the piece as an opera with the pure Shakespeare of the soliloquies as the arias. No comparison with Verdi's version with its grandeur and terrifying inevitability is intended, though; this is on an altogether smaller scale.
It's a fascinating piece of theatre and, once you start to think of it as Filter's re-imagining of Macbeth rather than another version of Shakespeare's, it actually throws a lot of light on the original and yes, it is indeed playful and does engage with the darker aspects.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan