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Macbett

Eugene Ionesco, English version by Tanya Ronder
Royal Shakespeare Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle
(2007)

Production photo

Macbett is one of the least performed of Ionesco's plays in Britain. Written in 1972, it didn't receive a UK production until 1989 when the RSC did it as part of their fringe season at the Almeida. Could it be because it takes liberties with the Scottish play? Surely not. Jarry's Ubu Roi gets performed often enough and its scatalogical cartoonishness is far more excessive than anything Ionesco's play offers.

Perhaps it is a little too European? Tanya Ronder's version, directed by Ionesco's fellow Romanian Silviu Purcarete, dispenses with much of the repetitive speech which the French seem to enjoy, retaining only - and appropriately - those spoken by Macbett and Banco early in the play and the very important reprise by them of the opening complaints about Duncan made by Candor and Glamiss.

One thing is certain: Macbett paints a far more bleak picture of human nature and, in particular, of government, than anything we find in Shakespeare. The corrupting influence of power has rarely been so clearly illustrated. Duncan is evil; Macbett becomes as evil as him when he takes over the reins of power, and his successor Macol tells us that he is going to be far worse, announcing seriously what Malcolm meant as a test for Macduff. No reconciliation, no hope, just a vision of tyranny stretching into the future.

Add to this the fact that the female characters, especially the witches and Lady Duncan, are thoroughly evil, that everyone else is totally cowed, even though resentment might be simmering underneath, and that, instead of just the severed head of Macbeth which we get at the end of Shakespeare's play, there are thousands of them (more than ten of which appear on stage), and the picture is very, very bleak

Purcarete's production owes much to his Eastern European roots with an emphasis on the visual: the use of masks (particularly effective with the two - not three - witches), a single clown playing a number of the minor characters (Sarah Malin as the passing woman, the lemonade seller, a butterfly catcher and a rag and bone man), the constant use of suitcases (including a flying suitcase carrying the witches off), the playing up of physical similarities between the characters (David Troughton as Macbett and Sean Kearns as Banco could almost be twins), and the very limited colour palette (with red being restricted to the rulers, the rest being black, grey, camouflage green or dark blue).

The playing, too, is stylised and very far from naturalistic, making for a cartoonish feel, although far removed from the grotesque cartoonishness of Ubu.

In short, we would seem to have a recipe for a most depressing, if not thoroughly miserable, evening in the theatre. Except that we don't: a totally black and yet very funny humour pervades the play, possibly in part - but only in part: Ionesco's absurdist style has much to do with it - due to the liberties it takes with its original. The time flew by!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan