|Macbeth is a deeply conflicted but ultimately self-interested figure|
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Plumridge
Unity Theatre (8th-9th February 2012)
Platform 4 delivered a suitably brooding production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play to enthusiastic Liverpool audiences. The intense acting, coupled with a minimalistic set design, worked perfectly on the Unity’s compact stage, giving us a ringside view of the political leader’s pyschology.
The play was first performed over four hundred years ago now, but it retains its power, precisely because of its social impact. That’s not to say the author intended it that way. Very much a courtier, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a celebration of James I‘s coming to the throne. The new monarch fancied himself descended from the Banquo of legend, and there are many allusions within the text to the turmoil of the preceeding Tudor years. However, as critic Terry Eagleton commented in regards to Charles Dickens this week, “a writer’s imagination may be more radical than his or her ideology.” By giving us such insight into the fictional thought-processes of Macbeth, Shakespeare shows us what is going through the mind of all potential rulers.
For those who don’t know the story, it begins on a “blasted heath”, whereupon the general Macbeth is returning from battle with his companion Banquo. Their armies have just seen off the combined forces of Norway and Ireland, and both are flushed with success. But they meet three “weird sisters”, who hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (his current title), Thane of Cawdor, and future king of Scotland. Banquo is told he will not be king himself, but his bloodline will be kings. Both are shocked, but this is hardened to belief when a messenger reveals that the current Thane of Cawdor is to be executed for treason, and Macbeth will be promoted to his title.
When Macbeth reaches home, he discusses the matter with his wife, and they concoct a plot to kill King Duncan, on the assumption that the murderer will then be elevated to the throne. Macbeth is by turns reluctant to kill his longtime friend, and determined to gain untold untold wealth and power. But the decisive role is played by Lady Macbeth, who exhorts him to “screw [his] courage to the sticking place”. The deadly deed is finally done, but the couple’s waking nightmare is only just beginning.
Platform 4 resist the temptation to do anything new with Macbeth, and their minimalistic approach encourages the audience to deeply consider both the text and the actors’ interpretation of it. And so we were fortunate that James Bellorini in the title role was able to combine a puffed-up military-bred masculinity with a convincing emotional frailty. Tamsin Fessey too was every inch an archetypal Lady Macbeth – scheming and seductive, yet tormented. But excellent though both were, they are upstaged by Ralf Higgins in a relative cameo as Macduff. His grief-stricken horror at learning of his family’s slaughter has to be seen to be believed.
There are two shortcomings. One, the constant guitar music adds little, and is often intrusive with its wild inappropriateness. Secondly, Shakespeare conceived of power being spoiled by a few ‘evil’ apples. But many in modern audiences know better, and can fill in the gaps to condemn all oppressive power structures.