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Review – Macbeth – Imitating The Dog at Liverpool Playhouse

IT is 400 years since the publication of the 1623 First Folio, when Macbeth first appeared in print. In their programme note for this retelling, Imitating The Dog’s co-directors speak of their ‘conceptual interrogation of the original text’, and what they present on stage is very much a new piece of theatre that takes the characters and themes of Shakespeare’s work and creates a new piece of storytelling that plays with them in a modern context.

Appropriately described as a neo-noir thriller, this Macbeth has all the dark, cinematic qualities that you might expect of a show from ITD but, whilst in previous outings the company have recreated classic films scene by scene onstage, here they use the technology to blur the boundary between film and live action. Vivid backdrops are projected onto a multi-faceted rear wall, and live images of the actors from onstage cameras appear on screens suspended from the proscenium.

The Macbeths are a pair of teenagers who have become embroiled in criminal gang warfare, and their ambition to become something in this world eventually leads to their downfall. ITD take Shakespeare’s central idea that the pursuit of power eventually corrupts and destroys, and reshape it into a new story that asks the same questions and engages with the same moral arguments as the original play in a new and very dynamic way. Large chunks of text, especially key soliloquies, are presented directly as originally written, amidst an otherwise entirely original dialogue that resets the story in this newly imagined world.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and this proves very much the case here. Budgetary constraints allow for a cast of just five actors, so alongside Benjamin Westerby and Maia Tamrakar as the eponymous couple, the remaining ensemble of Laura Atherton, Stefan Chanyaem and Matt Prendergast bring the original trio of Weird Sisters to life and thrust them centre stage. These Joker-faced witches and their prophesying become key to the storytelling, both acting as narrators to propel the show forward and slipping in and out of other character roles.

To say that the original play has been cut would be a huge understatement. It has been completely dismantled, and reassembled like a piece of flat-pack furniture built by looking at the picture but without reading the instructions. A great many pieces have been left out, but those that have been used have created something that still holds together and looks very much like what the creator intended. Running at 55 minutes each way, the two acts are propelled forward with dramatic urgency by directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks. The breathless pace never lets up, and the pair of Macbeths are swept along like corks on a fast-flowing river, brilliantly conveying the speed with which they lose control of their destiny.

It’s not a show for the Shakespeare purist, but it is a cracking piece of theatre that meets the author’s work in all the right places, and makes a strong case for reimagining these classics with a new perspective. Rather than sitting uncomfortably on the fence in trying to say something new whilst presenting the original text as written (as is often the case in modern productions) Imitating The Dog are unequivocal about totally reworking the play and it pays off, with the intrinsic moral thrust of the story entirely central to the show. Students studying Macbeth this year are in for a treat if they are taken to see this.

Star rating – 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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