Open Book – Macbeth

21 Jul 2011 in Dance & Drama, Highland

The Stables, Cromarty, 20 July 2011, and touring

THE first time I saw ‘Macbeth’, Ian McKellen was in the title role with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, directed by Trevor Nunn (long, long ago); the last time, Patrick Stewart shone under the superb directorship of Rupert Goold on BBC4. Other productions in between have faded from the memory; it’s already odds on this one won’t.

Marcus Roche has assembled a relatively young company, young enough to make plausible the possibility that Lady Macbeth may still produce heirs and thus explain her and her husband’s frantic hunger for the kingship. And energetic enough to tear into Shakespeare’s script, setting a fast, furious, physical pace in a show which grabbed the audience by the lapels from the first line and did not let go until the last.

Helen Mackay and James Mackenzie

Helen Mackay and James Mackenzie

Designed to tour small rural venues, the action took place around a minimal set of a long, rough-hewn banqueting table, throne and benches (at which some of the audience were seated), around and upon which the performers marched, leapt and prowled. Sharing nearly two dozen roles around a half dozen actors without significant costume changes was a little confusing at times but soon ceased to matter as the story overwhelmed everything.

James Mackenzie’s fiery, intensely physical performance as the Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, matched by Helen Mackay as his wife, was the dynamo at the heart of this rollercoaster ride, with able support from the rest of the company. As my neighbour said, it was great to hear ‘the Scottish play’ in Scottish accents, and it was breathtaking to see the tragedy unfold within arms’ reach. After this and the National Theatre of Scotland’s captivating “Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”, it will be hard to readjust to a normal theatre.

Shakespeare’s sly references to the ruthless realpolitik of Tudor England have not lost their teeth after four centuries. The Macbeths’ vaulting ambition sat perfectly in the middle a week during which increasingly shocking political machinations were exposed to public view daily.

I should declare an interest. Being part of North by North East, the consortium which commissioned this production, I saw the show wearing an eagle-eyed funder’s hat (have they spent the money wisely?) as well as the Northings reviewer’s hat. I shall happily report that Open Book have done NxNE proud with a production which, though designed specifically for rural audiences, could and should transfer to urban venues without a break in its formidable stride.

© Jennie Macfie, 2011