Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Artistic director David Thacker's annual Shakespeare production this year brings Macbeth to the Octagon stage.
Once more using the in-the-round configuration of the Octagon's space that he seems to favour for most of his productions, Thacker, with his designer James Cotterill, uses a period setting that feels vaguely modern but not too period-specific, which often works well for Shakespeare. The oval, grey stage with a few splatters of blood around the edges is accessed via a couple of ramps or by an imposing staircase up to some heavy, metal sliding doors. There is a feeling of being shut into a dark, cold fortress with the howling winds and thunder (sound design by Andy Smith) battering at the doors.
The production begins with a visual prologue of Macbeth in battle, showing no mercy even to those who beg for it and slaughtering everyone in his path. From the midst of the battle emerge the Weyard Sisters, who make extensive use of a grid cover in the centre of the stage as their cauldron, to appear and disappear and to conjure up visions—and this is also used to great comic effect for the entrance of the porter to answer the knocking at the gate.
Robert Cavanagh portrays Macbeth, certainly at the start, as a very ordinary and quite bland character who gets onto an unstoppable train of murder, aided by Suzan Sylvester as his wife. This largely works, although neither seems quite driven enough to take that first, terrible step of murdering the King. He shows quite a bit of emotion at hearing of his wife's death even though there appeared to be little affection between them, making it a point of realisation of what he has done before his final journey to destruction.
Colin Connor, a regular on the Octagon stage but almost unrecogniseable from one part to the next, is a very serious, haunted Banquo from the start. Drew Carter-Cain as Malcolm grows in stature until by the end he is believable as every bit the King. Russell Dixon gives us a very sympathetic King Duncan, some good laughs as the porter and a serious doctor suspicious of his master. The cast is completed by Iestyn Arwel, Ted Holden, David MacCreedy, Jack Sandle and Georgina Strawson.
Perhaps two thirds of the audience at the performance I attended was made up of school or college parties, many writing furiously throughout. It's a shame that some of them were writing so much and only occasionally glancing up at the play instead of letting themselves become absorbed in the action. This is a play that should be allowed to work on the gut, emotional level, leaving the literary analysis for the classroom.
This is the best Shakespeare production that Thacker has given us since taking over at the Octagon. Its storytelling is clear, it is unencumbered with a concept or an intrusive design and the performances work well. While it may not go down as one of the classic Macbeths, it puts across the play perfectly well and keeps the attention with the aid of atmospheric sound and lighting (lighting designer Ciaran Bagnall) and is certainly worth seeing.
Reviewer: David Chadderton