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Theatre Review: Macbeth @ Crescent Theatre, Birmingham


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The tale of Macbeth is so ingrained in our culture that everyone knows at least a fragment of its story. Be it Lady Macbeth’s Machiavellian plotting, or the three weird sisters and their chanting (‘double, double, toil and trouble’ anyone?), you’d have some idea of what to expect if you were to go and see it.

Given this precedent, I was interested to see how this particular production was going to adapt Shakespeare’s classic – would they reinvent it for the modern age and put it in the perspective of our current political climate? Or would they stick to its origins and make it historically accurate? The answer: a bit of both, and yet simultaneously neither.

Image courtesy of the production's webpage

Inconsistency was one of the biggest detractions in this staging. A framing device is used to set the tone of the production, with a man dressed in modern day clothes strangling a woman at the behest of the witches, who watch on gleefully. And yet we never see this character again, and never return to the modern day. In the director’s notes supplied in the programme, Karen Leadbetter states that it is meant to show how the witches’ influence is still seen today. But the effects of this strategy are diminished by its lack of connection to the story, and how the narrative never returns to the present.

There are echoes of the modern throughout – from the guns used to assassinate Macduff’s family (shown onstage with mixed results), to the nun chucks that Banquo uses to defend himself when Macbeth orders his death. If modern weaponry was used throughout, this might be an interesting tie to the framing device. Yet most of the characters still use swords and daggers, with the use of modern weaponry limited to a small handful of characters. This aspect could have been interesting, if they had simply done more with it.

Despite this, elements of the production were very strong: the three witches (played by Linzi Doyle, Stephanie Cole and Sicelo Mkwebane) were great, and brought an interesting dynamic to their performances. This adaptation casts the sisters more as puppet-masters than prophets, pulling the strings behind almost every encounter between the characters. From King Duncan appointing Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor to the titular character’s face-off with Macduff, the witches were present. This worked very effectively in creating the spooky vibe I presume they were intending (given the ever-present smoke employed by the production design), and added an extra level of subtext to a fairly simple play. The only downside to the witches were their familiars, transformed from creatures of darkness to small children. All they added to the play was creepy laughter whenever present, which became a bit tired by the second half of the production.

The actors playing Macbeth and his wife were excellent, and their chemistry really aided the performance. You got a sense that the couple were actually in love, rather than being told that they’re married and having to assume they must be, and their scenes together were vibrant. A particular moment late in the play stood out, in which Macbeth laments over his wife’s death as she leans into his embrace, a ghostly figure fully embodying his sorrow.

Naomi Jacobs as Lady Macbeth was a commanding presence, and I hope to see more of her in upcoming productions. I appreciated how this adaptation didn’t place the blame solely upon Lady Macbeth for her husband’s actions, instead showing both how the witches were pulling the strings and commanding their fate, and that the couple were as guilty as each other. Charlie Woollhead did a fantastic job at gaining the audience’s sympathy, as Macbeth transformed from duteous soldier to usurper, through subtleties in his body language and facial expressions.

Overall, I found aspects of this production to be fantastic – including wonderful performances from its lead actors. And yet, good parts cannot make up for a whole that I found to be somewhat lacking. I am definitely interested to see more from this company, and wouldn’t discount them for the faults I couldn’t help but nit-pick.

Macbeth is showing at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, until Saturday 12th November. Get tickets here

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