Review: Macbeth at the Epstein Theatre

Photo: Andrew AB

By Nigel Smith

DANIEL Taylor’s Shakespeare productions are becoming a welcome annual addition to the Epstein’s varied programme, and this year he has turned his directorial eye on the brooding Scottish tragedy of Macbeth. It may be about the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies but it certainly packs a good deal of action and intrigue into 2½ hours.

Taylor has, as with his previous forays into the Bard’s work, concentrated hard on narrative clarity, allowing the text to speak eloquently and with its original period flavour. This is especially helpful as there will be schools parties attending the production, and a stripped back version that relies on the writing is especially useful.

One of my personal gripes with some directors of Shakespeare is that they make the assumption that the works’ age implies instant familiarity with the story. They forget that, for many people, this will be the first and maybe only time in their life that they see the piece. Whilst I have no issue with bringing classics up to date and giving them contemporary relevance I do feel that storytelling should be the key consideration.

The casting is interesting and works better in some places than in others. Warwick Evans gives us a statesmanlike and well-rounded Duncan whilst Ethan Holmes is outstanding as Macduff. His rage and anguish as the dark tale progresses are so moving that it is almost painful to watch. Lenny Wood (who also plays Ross) provides splendid comic relief to the dramatic tension in his entry as the Porter, despite some reservations over where he delivers it from.

There’s a great trio of Weird Sisters whose prophecies drive the story, and they get their message across with Wagnerian theatricality from behind the murky darkness of a stage gauze, returning periodically to underline the plot.

Tracy Spencer-Jones certainly does become filled very speedily ‘from the crown to the toe, top full of direst cruelty’ as a very disturbingly manipulative Lady Macbeth. So much so that, on her husband’s return from battle, there isn’t so much as a fleeting moment of joy in their reunion before we’re swept into her fatal plotting.

It is her offstage husband Sean Jones who plays her onstage partner in both marriage and crime. Jones takes a restrained approach to the title role, which has mixed blessings. The introspection of his darker moments works well, whilst it’s hard to buy into his position of a great leader of men in battle.

There is one issue that must be addressed, which is the use of the theatre space to extend the action into the audience. Taylor did this with Midsummer Night’s Dream and with Romeo and Juliet, and on both occasions there were pivotal scenes that were completely invisible to large parts of the audience, being performed toward the sides and rear of the auditorium. Using the aisles of the stalls for entrances and exits can certainly make the performance more immersive and draw the audience into the action, but performing entire speeches this way simply does not work in this theatre as it might in others. A small part of the stalls crowd, for example were treated to an up close and personal view of Lenny Wood’s Porter, but this deprived some audience members of any view of it at all. The Porter implores us to remember him, but we need to be able to see him too.

Few directors can resist a bit of tinkering with the printed copy, and it’s rare to find anyone who won’t cut some of the dialogue. What can be more controversial is the reordering of scenes or, considered yet more sacrilegious, the addition of extra text. Daniel Taylor does take one particular liberty with the book that would confound the purist but which genuinely pays off. After Malcolm heads off to be crowned at Scone we are presented with a very brief additional closing scene that reminds us of history’s habit of repeating itself.

What’s done is done, but we are left with the feeling that it isn’t over yet. Room for a sequel perhaps?