Rob Wolfe as Macbeth counts the cost of the crown he killed to capture.


The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Long ago in my schooldays a wonderful teacher told us Shakespeare didn’t write books he wrote plays and the only way to understand or appreciate them was see them, perform them, live them.

So, lessons meant learning speeches and acting out scenes, then discussing what they meant. We were fortunate in that my school, a state establishment in case you were wondering, organised an annual week’s holiday, sorry, study course to Stratford for what were then O and A-level pupils.

We stayed in a youth hostel, saw four or five plays at the RSC each trip and in free time discovered the rather more illicit delights of picnics on the banks of the Avon with baguettes, cheese, wine . . . and girls. It engendered a lifelong appreciation of both Shakespeare . . . and bread, cheese, wine and, until I found the right one of course, girls.

DTCo with their Revision on Tour, might not the provide the same opportunity for victuals and underage libations but they do offer that vital element to any study of Shakespeare, performance, and what a performance.

Macbeth is one of the compulsory GCSE texts and writing about it with any conviction demands more than having read words on a page, the words need to be given meaning and brought to life on stage.

This is a sort of Reader’s Digest version of The Scottish Play, as it is known in the Thespian universe, lopping around an hour or so from the full length of what is by far Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. 

Missing are the comedy moments - Shakespeare did like to lighten the mood with comic interludes - and the scene setting exchanges to explain the politics and treachery afoot to a 17th century audience. Instead, Felix Grainger, full of charm and fun as the Porter, filled in the gaps as our narrator, as well as moonlighting as Ross.


Samuel Oakes as the bloody apparition of the murdered Banquo

What we are left with are all the important scenes and characters, and the important speeches, all in context, with the normal cast of 40 or more reduced to seven, doubling and trebling up.

Macbeth is a fairly bloody affair, with murders most foul, among a dozen demises, as regular as clockwork, or more likely cock crows in 1040 when the real story took place.

It all starts with the death of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor in battle with Macbeth and Banquo, and Macbeth, as a reward, gets the Thaneship, a lower ranking nobleman title with revenue rights.

Then there are the three witches who set the ball rolling by predicting Macbeth will be king and the seed of ambition is sown.

Samuel Oakes as Banquo is a lively friend of Macbeth and a bloody nightmare in death in the unhinged mind of the murderous Macbeth in the first cheerful and then troubled hands of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Rob Wolfe.

The witches are often depicted as ancient old crones but here they are young and merely weird rather than Wicked Witch of the West style. It sees two more RBC graduates with first Becky Dueck, who also plays Malcolm, the murdered King Duncan’s son, who is to return and reclaim his father’s throne, then Kate Roche, who also plays Macduff, who with no evidence, becomes a threat, along with his entire family, to the ambitions of Macbeth.

The third witch is Oriana Charles, who also has the role of one of theatre’s all time baddies, Lady Macbeth, a role she plays with a sort of uneasy sweetness, which is a thin sheath for the razor sharp blade beneath driving her hesitant husband forward.

The play, written in the reign of James I (James VI of Scotland remember), patron of Shakespeare’s company, has perhaps more to do with the politics of the time rather than historical accuracy. It was first performed in 1606 while The Gunpowder Plot was 1605, for example, play and plot having links in the minds of some historians.

Lady M

Oriana Charles as Lady Macbeth driving her husband to murder and madness

The prediction of the witches sets in train a growing and finally all consuming ambition in Macbeth, encouraged and cajoled by his wife, leading to Macbeth murdering the King, Duncan, while he was a guest in their home, and then murdering his two, innocent, attendants Macbeth and his lady had set up as the killers – despatched in mock fury before they could throw doubt on the accusations.

Duncan, Macbeth's cousin, played in avuncular fashion by Hadley Smith, comes over as a friendly, fair and just king whose only real fault is being in the way of Macbeth’s newly nurtured ambition. Smith also returns as one of the hired assassins of Macduff, and then even manages to get killed again as young Siward, son of the English commander of Malcolm’s army, and leading North of England earl, Siward.

One murder leads to a trail of killings to protect Macbeth from suspicion, from challenge, from revenge. Ambition is slowly replaced by madness and the rest of the witches’ predictions, such as the lethal threat of a marching forest, becomes reality. From loyal subject to dead traitor in two acts.

The concept is brilliant, a chance for GCSE pupils to see the essence of a play, the important parts, vital scenes and landmark speeches, the parts exam questions are likely to be based upon, with the test of knowledge looming – and, incidentally, the predominantly pupil audience were a credit to their schools with exemplary behaviour.

The production also provides an introduction to Shakespeare for those not involved in exams, a cut down version, with a running commentary from a narrator, rather like an opera with the main arias and story missing out the less relevant recitative.

The acting is superb, fast paced, roles transforming seamlessly, speeches full of feeling and emotionm while the staging is simple, a static castle interior set with three arched entrances and a rear panorama with changing light to indicate time or mood.

A front of stage light projecting giant silhouettes at dramatic moments is an effective and simple piece of stagecraft while original music from Paul Higgs, incidental and in the background, gives a film-like quality setting mood and signalling danger or tension.

Costumes (Mel Philpott) set the tone and Ryan Philpott’s adaptation and direction is well paced to bring out the essentials and essence of the play,

The company and cast kill off Duncan again tonight then move on to Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde on 01-05-24 and then that greatest and most universal of love stories, Romeo + Juliet on 02-05-24.

Roger Clarke


So why has Macbeth become The Scottish Play, is it damned, cursed or merely a portend of penury? And what of other theatrical superstitions? Find out here.  

Index page Alex Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre