Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Barbican - BITE:03
(2002)

This is the most exciting theatrical production that I have seen in London so far this year.

Calixto Bieito is one of the wild men of world theatre and opera. His productions of Barbaric Comedies and Don Giovanni each created the impact that he appears to love. Audiences either leave halfway through or demand numerous curtain calls.

You love Bieito's style or you hate i,t but this in-yer-face Macbeth, performed in Spanish or Catalan (with surtitles kept to a reasonable minimum) by a tremendous ensemble, will live long in the memory. Its 2½ hours fly by.

It is set in the current time, with costumes straight from an Almodovar film and a set that adapts from living room to beach and finally bloody battleground. The script is cut, characters are removed or swapped and, therefore, some of Shakespeare disappears to be replaced by the "auteur", Bieito. This is true director-led theatre with great support from set, lighting and costume designers, Alfons Flores, Xavi Clot and Mercè Paloma.

The first great feast after which lecherous Duncan (Santi Pons) is murdered takes the form of a drunken house party at the home of the clearly wealthy Macbeths. Duncan has blatant designs on the leather mini-skirted Lady M and has a wild last night on the planet.

The music at the party is largely supplied by Miquel Gelabert's Banquo, a man whose style is best described as summer holiday pop; the kind of thing to get drunken holidaymakers and partygoers jumping around. His own death occurs during a beach barbeque as everyone else has a great time. It is not really to be lamented, as he is a drunken bully who eagerly takes out his anger on his teenage son, Fleance.

In amongst all of the modern stuff, the essence of Shakespeare is not lost. Most of the characters appear, sometimes in a new light. As an example, Duncan's son, Malcolm played by Daniel Klamburg, is reminiscent of Harpo Marx with dyed blond hair, a terrible jacket and a kind of idiocy that smacks of regal inbreeding. Lady Macduff knows how to party but when life gets serious, Elisenda Bautista brings tears to the eyes.

The three witches go but are replaced by an all-purpose lady filling several of Shakespeare's parts, Seyton (Satan?) played by Chantal Aimée becomes witch, doctor and seducer to keep the plot rushing onwards.

The bloody night of Duncan's death and the subsequent death of Lady Macduff and her children are truly shocking. They are made doubly so by the simulation of sexual acts that many members of the audience may struggle to name. None of this seems gratuitous as Bieito ensures that the tragedy follows its allotted, bloody course.

The ending is a shock too. Isn't the main protagonist supposed to die rather than sing a dirge of death either by or modelled on Leonard Cohen? The strange thing is that even this liberty with the text makes a kind of strange sense.

The schoolchildren in the audience may have been a little baffled though and their examiners could be put off by their essays on the leading characters' motivations. The death of Lady Macbeth appears fuelled by a very modern cocktail of drink and drugs as are her husband's hallucinations.

Bieito's cast all act well with great energy. In particular, there are fantastic performances full of powerful emotion from the two main players, Mingo Ràfols and Roser Camí.

This is not a Macbeth for the blind purists or the faint-hearted. It will appeal to those who like spectacle and are willing to look at Shakespeare obliquely. Sadly, it is only playing in London as part of BITE:03 for 5 performances.

Cancel whatever you are doing. This is a show that you should not miss.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher