I often wonder why directors feel the need to reimagine the works of arguably this country’s greatest playwright. Is it an arrogance in believing that the bard had the right idea but didn’t do as good a job as they could, is it patronising towards the audience thinking that they need a hand in understanding the work, do they think that it needs updating? I don’t know. What I do know is that it rarely, if ever, works. Having seen Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse my opinion has only been reinforced.
My first musing was inspired by the idea that this play needed a couple of additional scenes. Was the decision for Lady Macbeth, played by Charlotte Arrowsmith, to have a miscarriage centre stage helpful, not really as it cast doubt as to the ‘damned spot’ of blood she was later trying to wash from her hands. Was it that of Duncan or the haemorrhage?
This is probably Shakespeare’s darkest play being concerned with the lust for conquering territory and the manic bid for power, a couple of themes more relevant today than they have been for 90 years, so why on earth do you add a comedic, nay farcical, scene to the mix. I think that we could have done without the guard’s description, complete with actions, of his bout of what we used to call Brewer’s Droop, whilst nursing a hangover. The greeting ‘rough night?’ was hardly in keeping with the period either. Perhaps it was felt that we audience members were not up to a full evening of war and murder.
The updating part of my tenet also did much to detract from the credibility of the story. In the programme, Amy Leach, the director, says ‘I also love hearing Shakespeare spoken in regional accents……I find I understand Shakespeare’s language and connect so much more to the heart of his characters when the text connects with the landscape through regional accents’. Perhaps she does but the landscape here is that of Scotland and whilst we had lots of regional accents none was Scottish. I was waiting for someone to say ‘Ey up lads, get thissen sorted art cos us Scots as to gi’ them English wazzocks a reet larrupin.’ It might work in other plays but not this one.
When scenes were added to facilitate the inclusion of two d/Deaf actors; Adam Bassett and Charlotte Arrowsmith who played Macduff and his wife, they were not always thought through. One in particular where their child was used to translate the BSL used between the two actors, they were pulling a Victorian era toy and singing Ring-a-ring of Roses, a nursery rhyme about the Great Plague of 1665. Macbeth was written in 1606.
The cast was multi ethnic, with Banquo, Gabriel Paul, being Afro-Caribbean. His performance in his Leeds accent was great but he was depicting a real person in history, a white Scot, and one from whom King James I claimed to have been descended. With the present controversy about actors being actively discouraged, or even hounded, from playing people of a different ethnic, gender or physical background to themselves, I didn’t get it at all.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am all for experimentation and had this been an adaptation from a novel where artistic licence could have been granted then by all means go for it. I have seen some absolute corkers at Leeds Playhouse which have played with the rules or broken them altogether, but this is a play with the dialogue written by the master, to be performed in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Changing this, along with the specific character descriptions is to ruin the piece akin to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. This is the story of Macbeth but to claim, as it does on the programme and poster, that it is by William Shakespeare is to stretch things a little far.
The play itself was brilliantly staged and acted. As I have previously stated, there were d/Deaf actors who, thanks to Amy Leach’s inventiveness, signed their own lines which were translated by other cast members. This meant that those who needed to see the BSL to follow the play could do so without having to keep glancing to the side of the stage. This was only done spasmodically so anyone relying on this form of communication would have been somewhat let down. I must admit I did miss my favourite cast member of all time, the lady who shows great ingenuity in signing some of the Leeds Playhouse’s shows. A quality needed in some of the more raunchy works!
Macbeth was superbly played by Tachia Newall and Lady Macbeth by Jessica Baglow who I thought was bit restrained to begin with, what with her being the driving force behind the murders, but she soon got into her stride and handled the transition from co-assassin to guilt-riddled breakdown victim amazingly well. Shahbaaz Khan as Malcolm was the other stand-out and seemed to fill his role effortlessly.
For those of you unfamiliar with Macbeth, or others like myself who did it for GCE ‘O’ Level English Literature in 1966 but have forgotten most of it, the story is as follows: Macbeth and Banquo, King Duncan’s generals, come across three witches in the woods who prophesy that Macbeth will be made Thane of Cawdor and then become king. Banquo will beget kings, meaning that Macbeth will not have heirs. King Duncan does indeed make Macbeth Thane of Cawdor and visits him at his home at Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth kills King Duncan with the aid, and encouragement of his wife but the deed is discovered when Macduff arrives to see the king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, run away to England in fear of their lives and Macbeth becomes king.
Worried by the thought that Banquo’s heirs will succeed him, he arranges for him to be murdered as well but Banquo’s son, Fleance, escapes. Both Macbeth and his wife then become tortured by what they have done with Lady Macbeth driven to madness. The witches further prophesy that Macbeth will be safe ‘until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and no-one of woman born shall harm him.’
When he learns that Macduff is joining Malcolm’s army Macbeth orders the killing of his wife and children. Macbeth sees the next part of the prophesy come true when Malcolm’s army advances to Dunsinane camouflaged by branches they had taken from Birnam Wood. Lady Macbeth dies and Macbeth himself is killed in battle by Macduff who, it transpires was born by cesarean section and therefore not strictly ‘of woman born’. Malcolm becomes king.
The acting was uniformly superb and, despite my reservations that this was not the real Shakespeare play, I enjoyed it a lot. I would have preferred it had it been labelled as being ‘based on the play by Shakespeare’ because I don’t want the large number of school children who were there on the night, and the ones who will inevitably follow, to befall the same fate as I and fail their exam, in their case because they refer to the drunken sexual antics of the guard, or the other embellishments, in their answers.
The real star of the show though, was the set. It comprised a huge wooden ramp which worked as a road and battlefield when down, but when raised, it revealed a space where banqueting took place. The area surrounding the ramp was covered in dark brown earth and there was a small pond to one side. Around the edge of the stage was a ‘forest’ of tall scaffolding lighting stands with lamps which either shone upwards or swivelled down and played across the stage. They also switched between white, blue and red light the latter used to represent the blood of the battlefield. The Set and Costume Designer was Hayley Grindle and the Lighting Designer, Chris Davey. The Sound Designer and Composer was Nicola T Chang and special mention must go to Claire Llewellyn of RC-Annie Ltd who was the Fight Director. Never have I seen such a realistic sword fight as that between Macbeth and Macduff at the end of the play.
Macbeth runs until 19th March. For more details and booking, please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/macbeth/
All photographs by Kirsten McTernan