Saturday, 30 April 2011

Unhappy couple

'Well, it rattles along, doesn't it?' remarks an elderly audience member at intermission. 

And it does: Michael Boyd's extraordinary, compelling and iconoclastic new production of Macbeth (Shakespeare's shortest play) opens the renewed Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But if this is an express train, Bill the Bard has us bound headlong for Hell, as Boyd and his cast take us on a harrowing journey into the darkest regions of the human heart.

Boyd's boldest stroke is to re-imagine the 'supernatural solicitings' that so famously awaken Macbeth's dormant yearnings for ever greater status and power. To do so he (shockingly?) cuts some of the most famous scenes in the play, presenting the three 'witches' as (I'm guessing) they have never been seen before. Purists may have palpitations.

Not that the original production in the early 1600s was without its dangers: a play about the murder of a Scottish king, performed before King James I, newly arrived from Scotland to succeed the childless Elizabeth I. 

And whether you're a monarch or the man or woman on the bus, 'succession' is crucial to the well-being of everyone in the kingdom - our hopes often resting on the vulnerable shoulders of a child. And Shakespeare's on-stage children rarely see a happy ending: most die. As did his only son, Hamnet, aged 11 in 1596.

This play has more children and babies (seen and unseen) than in any of the other tragedies, their experience casting a grisly light on the consequences of the Macbeths' terrible betrayals. And it's Boyd's development of this theme that makes this show so disturbing, amply fulfilling the spirit of the text - if not the letter. 

Fine work from Jonathan Slinger and Aislin Mcguckin as the Macbeths, disintegrating before our eyes. Massive hurrahs for lighting designer Jean Kalman and composer Tom Armstrong. Designer Tom Piper sets the action in a vast space reminiscent of a crumbling, desecrated cathedral. (The new auditorium triumphantly fulfils the promise of being able to combine epic with intimate.)

The vast back wall holds a silent clue to Boyd's vision for the play: between the shattered stained glass and statuary the eye picks out a shallow space that once held the sacred building's focal point: but the cross has been removed.

Here's Charles Spencer's review for the Daily Telegraph.

No comments: