I’ve always liked the anticipation of seeing a Shakespeare play, especially the tragedies, but what always fills me with foreboding is when they are ‘modernised’. This, to me, often means taking liberties with text and staging, and to a large extent this was true at the Millennium Centre. In a way, the story was downsized, which is a shame given such a large stage. I always try to keep an open mind, which is not easy given some of the versions I’ve seen (Romeo & Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets were humans and aliens) and some work really well, such as Andrew Scott’s Hamlet set in a Sky News, Denmark. Here the witches appeared, covered in what looked like see-through rain ponchos, talked with electronic enhancement, and then climbed poles like a Cirque du Soleil show. I was impressed by the climbing, not so much by the sound effects obscuring their words. Then there’s the weapons problem: set it in modern times and give them guns is fine, set it in historical times and give them swords and axes, fine too, but here the weapons were short machetes and what looked like switchblades, which tends to ‘shrink’ the fighting, especially when, in the hands of the burly Michael Nardone, they look like toys. Macbeth is about power, it’s seductive and destructive nature, and the violence is often the physical embodiment of such power, so when you diminish the threat, you diminish the effect.
There’s a question that always bothers me when seeing this play: why doesn’t the whole cast have Scottish accents? I’ve never seen a version that does, outside Scotland obviously, which puzzles me. Productions always hedge their bets by having some (here I counted four) but not all. Why? I found that the mix of accents unbalances things, this is 11th century Scotland after all, not 21st century Soho, and yet here we have Scots, Geordie, RP, Yorkshire, etc. When you throw in the gender swapping of some characters, the flip-flopping personalities of others, changes in the lines and a cast which has mixed success dealing with iambic pentameter, it all adds up to a jarring distraction.
On the plus side Nardone is a good Macbeth, gruff, tender and loving, especially in the scene where he cradles his dead wife, although his intent to kill the king seems to have come more from her calling him a wimp than his own will. The conflict within him seen in the line “I dare do all that may become a man;Who dares do more is none”, yet still Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth wins him over, with a fierce charm. Patrick Robinson as Banquo provides a sweet sadness to their friendship, Lisa Zahra (Lady MacDuff) speaks with great pathos for women everywhere when she says “why then, alas, do I put up that womanly defence, to say I have done no harm?” while facing her death. As her husband, Ross Walton brings a righteousness and guilt to the role, and Deke Walmsley’s Porter adds comedy to lighten the mood.
Many in the theatre obviously enjoyed the show, I was more ambivalent. The boundaries in Shakespeare must always be pushed, and Rufus Norris the director deserves respect for trying to make it relevant to today’s generation, but not at the expense of losing the things that make it great. This is not a bad production then, more of a worthy failure.