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‘The Scottish Play’ comes to The Stables

Macbeth at The Stables

Patrick Kealey reviews an extraordinary production of Macbeth.

There’s a lot to admire in Frances Viner’s bold timely modern dress revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Stables Theatre playing until Saturday 12 February 12. In a‘poor theatre’ empty stage setting framed by a semi circle of about 20 miscellaneous chairs, and a grainy CCTV style back projection giving ghostly out of synch echo to the action on stage, she exposes her wonderfully committed ensemble of actors to relentless scrutiny by the audience as both witnesses and participants to the unfolding tragedy. It’s a brave exercise in creating a genuine ensemble theatre company and pays huge dividends at several key points in the action and you rapidly forgive the mixed experience and ability of the players and appreciate the inventive unfussy fluid staging and clever set pieces.

In the infamous banquet scene for example, the entire cast confidently sashay downstage to a disco beat – Ru Paul would be delighted – wearing paper crowns like some demonic Christmas party from hell, eyeball the audience, tear their hats off, and throw them contemptuously towards us as if to say “ so much for power and ambition” before parading back around the stage under Macbeth’s oversized robe of state like some kind of comic caterpillar.

There are a lot of servants and supporting characters in Macbeth and it’s a tribute to the detailed direction that nearly all of them make their mark. Everyone gets their moment. I particularly liked the gibbering mess of an assassin with a drink problem (probably not the best candidate for the job of ruthless killer), the eerie bag lady witches first seen applying bright red lipstick before winding up their spell, (echoed by Mary Campbell’s predatory, languorous Lady Macbeth on her first entrance so we understand that she is already marked out as their useful instrument of evil) and a sleazy gleeful bug eyed drunken porter much the worse for wear. I’ve never realised before quite how big a part drink plays in the story. Scotland. Wow! There’s an awful lot of quaffing going on. But then if you lived somewhere as bleak as the landscapes in Sam Sharples back projections you’d probably need a stiff drink or two to make it through as well. At one point the chorus/ensemble clutter the stage with discarded paper cups. “The party’s over” they now seem to be saying. Sex, death and alcohol – what more could you possibly want from a good night out at the theatre?

Matt Hastings is a rotund, barrel chested bearlike Macbeth who struts and frets the stage with a haunted air. He shows flashes of valiant fury as well as a growing sense of hollowed out guilt at the violent black mass he’s unleashed. In the scene after Duncan’s murder we watch him checking out how well his Johnsonian whoppers are going down, casting a shifty sidelong glance at his warrior wife at one point as if seeking reassurance from her that they’re getting away with the regicide they’ve inflicted on the assembled grief stricken court. While he never hits heights of heroic or tragic grandeur, it’s a convincing portrait instead of a very ordinary man descending into a pointless and futile murderous psychosis. Think Breaking Bad, which took 8 seasons to tell the story that Shakespeare compresses into two hours.

Lady Macbeth has a harder task. Dame Sybil Thorndike was a notable Lady M. In her day. There’s a wonderful apocryphal story that she was asked how it was to play her and retorted “I just don’t understand her, why on earth does she go mad? She was perfectly alright at dinner”. One of the virtues of this take on the play is that the character through lines are clear. This Lady M. Is confident of her sexual allure, it’s how she controls her weaker willed husband. As he spirals into a distant rage fuelled madness of his own, he at one point violently rejects her seductive offer of a blow job. It’s a crude but effective moment. She’s lost her hold over him for good. You can chuck the red lipstick hen, he’s not coming back. There’s nowhere left but down.

Anthony Lusted is a convincing Macduff on his journey from proud courtier to rebel exile to grief stricken revenger as is Peter C. Miller’s as Banquo. Full disclosure. I played Banquo at university and felt peeved that I got killed off so early in the play. I don’t know what this Banquo was thinking as he lasered his ghostly white paint smeared stare at Macbeth in the Banquet scene but it worked for me. In my case I was thinking “That part should have been mine”. I believe it’s called method acting.

Finally a big shout out to the Stables production team. The production doesn’t shy away from the fact it’s called the Scottish play. The costumes have been judiciously assembled with the occasional bit of tartan – a tie here, a tam o’ shanter there – and I really liked the subliminal bagpipes layered into Keith Rodway’s dark atmospheric Neo-noir underscore. The unsettling projections heighten the sense of a harsh unforgiving world – there’s a particularly effective rain drenched moorland scene before the murder of Lady Macduff which the Scottish tourist board are unlikely to be using anytime soon. And finally, Jonathan Richardson’s lighting brings subtle shifts of colour and texture to what could in lesser hands have ended up looking like a dentist’s waiting room.

It’s a big brave bold statement by the Stables to be willing to support daring uncompromising visions such as this. You could feel the appreciation in the audience. Keep supporting the arts.

We need to tell stories now more than ever.

Macbeth is playing at The Stables until Saturday 12th February. For more information and to book, visit The Stables website.

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Posted 16:32 Friday, Feb 11, 2022 In: Performance

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