Review: Macbeth

‘Modern in all the right ways’: ROISIN KIBERD strongly recommends this new take on an age old play.

Isabel Taylor Judith E Wilson Macbeth promenade Theatre

Thursday 18th – Saturday 20th, 7.00 at the Judith E. Wilson Studio.  £5-6.

Directed by Isabel Taylor.

'Times have been, / that when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end; but now they rise again'

So says Macbeth when confronted with the ghost of Banquo, back from the grave and seated at his dinner table. The same might be remarked of Macbeth itself, the GCSE play that refuses to die. How many dodgy school-hall stagings have we seen, with daggers on strings and a bellowing hero, or po-faced fringe productions with no daggers at all? We were warned that Shakespeare's most commercial tragedy was cursed; the curse seems to be that no director can ever get it right.


Such is the perennial popularity of Macbeth that only last week one staging finished at the Corpus Playroom, for another to spring up in its place.  I arrive expecting cringy pretension from this piece of 'promenade theatre'; we're kept waiting ten minutes while cast members mill around and lean against walls dressed in military regalia, one in a wheelchair and another bloodied with prosthetic battle-scars.  But the queue takes an interesting turn when a small boy emerges and starts handing each person scribbled pictures, of swords and eerie symbols and the nuclear family daubed in blood. 

Smugly self-referential, yes, but disarming and a little bit hilarious. What remains of the fourth wall is swiftly seen off by the witches who usher us in with bells, shine torches in our faces and rifle through the front row's handbags.

It is the added dimension that really makes the production.  At one point we accompany Macbeth through a madhouse corridor, dimly lit by witches and terrifying little children (yes, they use real child actors, terrifyingly eloquent and probably harvested from some local theatre school..).



We alternate from the shadows and synthesized soundtrack of the main studio, to daylight, to a corridor, to the studio once again, creating the unnerving sense that the play is unfolding in real time.

This is enhanced with standout performances from the leads; Kathryn Griffith's Lady Macbeth plays the hostess and the mental patient with equal conviction, while James Barwise is an endearingly fallible and human hero.  Griffith's terse, emphatic delivery takes a bit of getting used to, but as a pair they are the ideal mix of morally repellent and sexy. The supporting cast is also well-chosen; Benedict O'Malley plays Malcolm as provincial and childlike, just as Shakespeare's wash-out prince should be, while Macduff (John Winterburn)'s lament for his wife and child provides a tender, tragic lull between the battle scenes and witches' shrieks.

Photos by Chrystal Ding.

Canny directing and a restrained but supremely inventive production marks this out as miles beyond Shakespeare by-the-book. Modern in all the right ways, it struck a careful balance between attention-grabbing 'concept' staging and an intense focus on performances. Productions like these make you want to get up on stage and join in the action. The difference being that in this strange, four-dimensional rendering of Macbeth, for one night we really can.