macbeth head

A little witchcraft as Clemmie Sveaas, Jessie Oshodi and Ana Beatriz Meireles raise the dead Photo by Richard Hubert Smith


Birmingham Rep


CONTEMPORARY interpretations of Shakespeare’s work are always bound to divide opinion. Traditionalists are less open to visions that go well outside the box of what they expect, what they are used to.

Others welcome fresh, more challenging versions that offer an audience a new perspective.  There is, of course, no right and no wrong; interpretation provides endless staging choices and opportunities for a director. What shouldn't be tinkered with, however, is the richness and power of the text. It really is all about the words.

Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s nightmarish take on The Scottish Play is packed full of stylised directorial choices. The use of dance gives a certain pace and fluency to the storytelling. A foreboding, subterranean set gives a bleak, almost claustrophobic feel – dark intentions mirrored by grey, unforgiving surroundings.

Back Lighting maintains the sombre mood and deliberately highligmacbeth and lady macbethhts lurking shadows. Pace between scenes is slick, never allowing the energy to drop.

All these elements are unquestionably effective and innovative. Whether they work holistically for the good of the play is more open to question.

As a student, one of the many checklists I had to write about for any story was its themes. I imagine that the considerable number of GCSE students in the audience last night were grappling with the same question.

John Heffernan as Macbeth and Anna Maxwell Martin  as Lady Macbeth

Macbeth’s themes are universal and still frighteningly relevant today. Corruption, political infighting, uprising, war and misuse of leadership; all feature heavily and highlight, depressingly, how so little has changed in the corridors of power. 

Exploring these themes within a modern context is a good way in for a director to make a play more accessible. We know that death and betrayal is going on but what is more interesting is the effect those things have on the characters. Cause and effect is explored well here, connecting the established themes very much to our own time.

Performances are tight throughout. Lady Macbeth is played with beautiful understatement by Anna Maxwell Martin whilst John Hefferman coveys the richness of the text with real effect.  The company deliver the story with pace and passion – all the more effective on a narrow corridor of a set.

For me, the choices made do not always work. At times the choreography seems over used. It doesn’t always seem to integrate successfully with the text and at times detracts somewhat from the richness of the language. While the flow and movement of the play are undeniably and cleverly assisted by integral choreography, it threatens, at times, to dilute the real power of the central narrative. 

If you are expecting the play you were probably taught at school, you won't get it. If you want your witches to be vile, toothless crones stirring up eyes of a newt in a big pot, again, you won't get it. What you will get is a brave and dynamic new vision that brings a much loved text bang up to date.  You may love it. You may not. But what it will do is make you talk about it and that can only be a good thing. To 30-01-16

Tom Roberts



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