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A CurtainUp London Review
Shakespeare in the modern theatre always works best when the production is imbued with a unique vision or definite interpretation. This is certainly true of this latest version of the Scottish play which, far from the Highlands, is in fact set in Stalinist Russia. The stage is occupied by an institutional-looking, underground bunker-style space which could equally be a war-zone hospital, an abattoir or a morgue. Within this stark set, there are grimy tiled walls, a single basin whose taps sometimes issue forth blood and a metal fridge from which a witch makes an entrance. In the centre of the stage is a smoke-filled, gated and old-fashioned lift which is put to excellent use for dramatically-charged entrance and exits. Projected films at times occupy the entire stage, whether it's reels of political rallies, a procession of army tanks, swirling blood or a hospital monitor with a terminal flat line.
This eerie subterranean and liminal space promotes a sense of claustrophobia, as well as representing an onstage netherworld full of murky politics and in close proximity to death. It is entirely apt, for example, when Malcolm says their country "cannot be called our mother but our grave". Also, the Russian setting cleverly reinforces the sense of political machinations, ambition-driven assassinations and justified, all-pervasive suspicion. The people in power are subject to a continual flux driven by both public flattery and underhand plotting, while shady, criminal actions occur under the cover of disputed autocracy.
The witches are a masterstroke of creepy originality. They are dressed as nurses in full early 20th Century outfits, with white headdresses and prim uniforms. However, rather than being administrants of care, their faces have ghoulish, vampirish make-up: pale with black eyes and blood dripping from their mouths. As nurses, they are ancillary characters, separate from the rest of society as well as asexual and almost inhuman women with a too-close relationship with death. During one of their conjuring scenes, for example, there is not a cauldron in sight and instead they make three body bags wriggle to life before channeling awful prophecies from them.
In a similarly unnerving interpretation, the Porter (Christopher Patrick Nolan) is played as a deranged madman, with dark circles under his eyes, a poacher's bag and a flashlight which he spotlights into the audience.
My only qualm about this production is the choice of Patrick Stewart as the epnonymous protagonist. A most inexplicably lauded actor, his Macbeth lacks charisma, range, depth or any sense of emotional coherence and development. I suppose it may have been useful to be able to borrow a decapitated head from Madame Tussauds' Star Trek exhibit, but other than that, Patrick Stewart does very little for this production. Nevertheless, Rupert Goold's creative direction belies the tenet that this play relies on a strong central performance to be a success.
Moreover, Kate Fleetwood is a chillingly superior Lady Macbeth, convincingly moving from self-possessed clarity to mental disturbance and able to raise over-familiar speeches out of the realm of cliche. Michael Feast is also a superb Macduff and I can only wish he had been offered the role of Macbeth.
Patrick Stewart notwithstanding, this is a tense and brooding production, full of stylized, dark atmosphere and blessed with a director who thinks outside of the text to gauge overall mood and significance.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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