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Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal, York
(2005)

With a running time of just under two hours and no interval, this Macbeth must be one of the shortest on record. Huge chunks of Shakespeare's already brief text have been jettisoned - everything that doesn't contribute directly to the plot or character development ends up on the theatrical equivalent of the cutting room floor. Director/designer Damian Cruden just about gets away with it because of all Shakespeare's tragedies Macbeth is the most plot-driven, but he has left little room (or time) for the actors to explore their characters.

There's nothing particularly Scottish about the "Scottish play" so it comes as no great surprise to find that Cruden has switched the action to feudal Japan. Japanese theatre techniques obviously inspired the use of black-clad puppeteers, who manipulate the three witches (grotesque creatures with the skeletal arms and bloated stomachs of famine victims) and Macbeth's visions. Samurai swords are de rigueur for the men, and even Lady Macduff puts up an impressive display of swordmanship before being dispatched by Macbeth's agents. Banquo's murder, so often staged in the most perfunctory manner, is a wonderfully balletic scene in which the victim's blood is represented by scarlet ribbons unfurled from his costume by "invisible" attendants.

This is, indeed, one of the most visually striking productions of the play I can remember. The actors are framed by backdrops that retreat and advance, rise and fall as required. The stage is covered with a deep layer of dark grey sand, which has the eerie effect of muffling all noise except the clanging of swords. Props are kept to the bare minimum and costumes are colour-coded - blue for Macbeth and his followers, orange for his opponents. The feast at which Banquo makes his unwelcome appearance is clearly based on da Vinci's Last Supper, a reminder that this is one of Shakespeare's most overtly religious plays. So many of Cruden's ideas are successful that a few misfires, such as the slow-motion fight scene (hackneyed beyond redemption) and the hopelessly comical flying "babies" - puppets representing Banquo's descendents - stand out like sore thumbs. But on the whole his innovations work like a charm of powerful trouble.

As for the performances, the breakneck speed of the production gives the Macbeths (Terence Maynard and Barbara Marten) few opportunities to convey the intense emotional and erotic bonds between them. Maynard is hampered by the fact that due to textual cuts (no "Bellona's bridegroom" speech, no fight with Young Seyward) he is never really allowed to establish himself as a heroic man of action; the duplicitous head of state is all we see, and even then it's hard to believe that this is a man whose mind is "full of scorpions". Marten's beautifully spoken Lady Macbeth leaves more of an impression, but even in her sleepwalking scene one feels that her mental disintegration has little to do with genuine remorse. This Lady was framed to be Queen in her own right, and when she orders her husband to replace the bloodstained daggers I had visions of Mrs Thatcher handbagging a wet Junior Minister…

Taken as a whole, Cruden's Oriental Macbeth is a short, sharp shocker with much to recommend it. A good ensemble cast, a succession of stunning stage pictures (Malcolm Rippeth's lighting is superb), Asha Kahlon's movement direction and Christopher Madin's highly effective percussion-based score make this a memorable, if flawed, Macbeth.

At the Theatre Royal, York, until 19 March

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson