Gangster Macbeth

11 July 2009

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Love&Madness‘ setting of Macbeth, currently at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, moves it from mediaeval Scotland to a pub in ’60s London gangland, and like all such translations something is lost – and something is gained. On balance, I think the gains outweighed the cost.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and drives relentlessly through its short scenes. It takes a couple of scenes to get used to the combination of ’60s decor and Shakespearian language, but as you do, the intimacy of the studio theatre becomes claustrophobic. The gangster framing also emphasises the ties of blood and loyalty, and the closeness of violence to the surface (and as much personal as business), which can easily get lost in a more traditional presentation.

Power is an aphrodisiac, and the Love&Madness production captures this well in the sexual relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which becomes more physical as the moment of Duncan’s murder approaches.

Obviously the witches present a problem in a modern setting; they are the most primitive – or primeval – element of the story and don’t sit well in a post-enlightenment world, even one where the paint is peeling from the walls. The production dealt with this by turning them into folk musicians, almost straight out of the Troubadour, and having their curses sung. This has the strength of making the witches more like a chorus, with bursts of video for the scenes from the cauldron, but at the same time makes them less evil, and more detached. Arran Glass’ singing wasn’t the best, but was compensated for by Kate Robson-Stuart’s sinuous violin.

I liked the way the audience were drawn in to the story, being offered snacks from the buffet at the supper after Banquo’s death (and at some productions, though not this one, a glass of wine from the bar as they arrive). We could have had a seat at one of the pub tables, but weren’t that brave. Shame the audience wasn’t  larger, but we did go to a Saturday matinee. It’s on at the Riverside, in repertory, until 28 July.

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