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Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?

William Shakespeare
Performed by Teatr Biuro Podròzy
National Theatre Square 2
(2009)

Production photo

Commissioned for Cork - European Capital of Culture and premiered there in 2005, this outdoor Polish production has been seen in many places since, including the Edinburgh Festival and on a previous visit to the National Theatre. It is misrepresented as being by William Shakespeare. It isn't, though it is inspired by his play and does include a few mangled speeches. It is a performance about images not text: powerful images backed by dramatic recorded sound and the music of Wiki Nowikow and Lukasz Jata. It takes what it wants from Shakespeare's story (as he himself so often did with other people's work) and uses those bare bones to fashion a work that is well crafted to tour globally on the international festival circuit.

This is sixty minutes of spectator sport. The audience watches standing on low bleachers and behind crowd barriers, like a football crowd, though this is more like gladiatorial combat than a soccer match. I'm not sure how much plot you'd get if you didn't know the play, but the sort of international audience it attracts almost certainly knows a little. Not enough perhaps to be too aware of what is missing: nothing of Macduff for instance and no attempt to explore Macbeth's trajectory, but enough to fit some sort of narrative together with the occasional scrap of a well-known speech to tell you where you are, though the plot is hugely truncated and events moved around. The Macbeths do bloody the faces of Duncan's guards but, with the 'good' characters missing, Macbeth can just make himself king. Through its title the production seems to be inviting audiences to identify Macbeth with a ruthless monster figure of their own - or more than one, for costume hints at times suggest both SS uniform, a khaki sort of servant uniform that could be represent the US or the leathers of Balkan warlords.

The performance is timed to play in deepening darkness. A daylight show would be a very different experience for much use is made of naked flames and the searching beams of motorcycle headlights. I'm sure someone must have dubbed this 'The Motor-bike Macbeth' for most of the protagonists arrive on them or are dragged behind them, except for little Fleance, son of Macbeth's one-time companion in arms Banquo, who rides a diminutive child's bicycle, and the witches, nun-like wraiths with white kerchieves veiling their faces, and those they control when exercising their power soar above mere mortals, raised high on stilts.

In total I was left with the impression of a bravura performance that was somehow less than its parts: but some of those parts are very impressive. The witches (not yet on stilts) falling before Macbeth and Banquo's bullets and then rising up again, un-killable, their predictions told to us through Lady Macbeth reading Macbeth's letter while he wanders among the poles that mark their meeting place (and represent his victims), the felling of those poles as each victim is dispatched, a motor cycle dragging in the caged and naked body of traitor Cawdor, the witches taunting Macbeth with a sort of huge lawn roller, the open wheel of which displays the hanging heads of all his victims, and then trapping Macbeth between its shafts, a door suddenly opened to reveal that Lady Macbeth, her mad scene not washing with imaginary water but standing naked taking a full bath.

When an army on stilts approaches Macbeth's fortress it is not disguised behind the leafy branches of Birnam Wood but carries bare trunks of trees, battering rams or fire fuel to burn him out, perhaps, but more significantly a symbol of those he has murdered, an avenging rather than a righteous army. There is no true-blood Malcolm, backed by English power, no Macduff for him to face. Macbeth sets fire to his own castle, incinerating himself and his self-slaughtered queen and from the ashes Fleance emerges with the crown.

Director Pawel Szkotak seems to be offering some kind of reconciliation by ending the show with some lines about bones and ashes that seemed to be adapted from a passage in T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday, and suggesting some kind of catharsis after his image of all too contemporary ruthless power seeking.

In Square 2 until 7th August

Reviewer: Howard Loxton