William Shakespeare
theatre babel
Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring

Lewis Howden as Macbeth

This Macbeth began life as a production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 and does retain the signs of that origin: it is short (already the shortest of the tragedies, it has been cut to ninety minutes) and is performed with a cast of just nine. Gone are Ross (Macduff replaces him in Act I Scene 2), Lennox and the other Scottish nobility; gone are two of the witches; gone is Macduff's son; gone even is the "bloody man" at the beginning (again, Macduff replaces him to some extent); gone are Hecate, the other spirits, the procession of kings of Scotland, Donalbain, Seyton, the various murderers, Siward, numerous messengers and the porter.

The three witches combine into one "child", who is also a number of Macbeth's servants, Lady Macbeth's Gentlewoman and the Doctor. When she is the witches, she speaks alongside a soundtrack of other voices which are just above the threshold of audibility and augmented with reverb and a touch of echo. (Incidentally, there is a very effective and usually very subtle soundtrack throughout.)

There is wholesale cutting of scenes and some swapping around of bits of scenes.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, a kind of Lamb's Little Tales from Shakespeare for adults, but it isn't. Not at all, for director/designer Graham McLaren has done his cutting and staging so well that the essence of the play comes through strongly even though something of the poetry is lost. The blood imagery, so central to the play, is still there, and is indeed reinforced by McLaren's brilliant piece of design: rows of swords, points down, hanging for much of the time above the stage.

The actual staging is simple: as the protagonists in one scene, for example, exit stage right, those of the next enter stage left. With its small numbers on stage, its at times static presentation and its (comparative) lack of on-stage violent action, it is to some extent reminiscent of Greek tragedy (which, in the form of Liz Lochhead's version of Euripides' Medea, brought the company to national attention at the 2000 Fringe), and this focuses the attention on the themes of the lust for power and the depths of evil to which those who, like Macbeth, are in its grip will sink.

Something is lost, of course. Whilst the "child" is a chilling figure, substituting her for the original witches takes away the sense that evil is a very real exterior force, a force to which Macbeth wholly surrenders himself. There is still a suggestion of this, of course, in the other voices which are heard in the witches scenes, but the child at times seems to be an internalisation, something within Macbeth. This Macbeth has more of the microcosm and less of the macrocosm.

But it is very powerful, stark and gripping. Unfortunately its tour is nearly at an end, with just the Lighthouse (Poole), Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Theatr Gwynedd in Bangor to go.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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