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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Macbeth, Bristol Old Vic Theatre

From English Touring Theatre, in association with Bristol Old Vic, Richard Twyman directs an adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ that has been garnering rave reviews for its visceral contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.


Widely thought to have been first performed well over 400 years ago, in 1606, the key tenets of Macbeth nevertheless still speak to the endemic corruption in society today.


Be prepared to be wowed by this very different interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, at the Bristol Old Vic.


This is a modern day make-over with dark humour, glamour and sexual tension. This is Macbeth but not as you know it.


The warning lights for Shakespeare purists start flashing the moment the houselights go down. Instead of three witches gathered on a blasted heath, the opening scene features Lady Macbeth (Laura Elsworthy) fretting restlessly in a modern-day penthouse apartment, waiting for news from her husband which comes in the form of a video message.


Then the imminent arrival of Macbeth with King Duncan to their contemporary designer home: a two-storey, curved, horseshoe-shaped wall of glass and wood veneer hugging backstage.


Use of mixed media and input from projection designer Will Duke is a large part of this production. Images of witches, battlegrounds and eerie dreams are projected onto the first-floor wall of smooth veneer which stretches and twists around the back of the stage.


Basia Binkowska’s set is completed with a modern American-style fridge with an ominous rack of knives stuck to the front throughout the evening.


Against a landscape of violence, grief and a pervasive and claustrophobic sense of the uncanny, the story follows the Macbeths as they risk succumbing to the corruptible influence of power. Seeing an opportunity to seize the crown by murdering the king he had bravely served, the pair become haunted not only by their misdeeds, but by Nature herself.


The ensemble features Mike Noble as Macbeth, Laura Elsworthy as Lady Macbeth, Guy Rhys as Macduff, Ross Waiton as Duncan, Hayley Konadu as Malcolm, Brian Lonsdale as Banquo, Coral Sinclair as Lady Macduff, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi as Lennox and Leo Wan as Ross.


Director Richard Twyman has introduced many fresh innovations in this adaptation. Malcolm is often walking around set with a handheld camera projecting onto the veneer screen; there are dinner parties; karaoke before the battle; bagpipes; even party poppers.


Some of the updates lend little added value to the production: so much has been brought in it becomes a distraction rather than enhancing the story. It is a curious and innovative approach and a bold attempt at the contemporary but often the intensity leaks away with the random and distracting innovations.


The descent into madness of the couple and the effects of the moral corruption on Scotland’s civil order and society are well played out by the cast. As too are the hugely visceral fight and murder scenes—most particularly the hand-to-hand combat and murder of children.


Laura Elsworthy is terrific as Lady Macbeth, with the sexual chemistry and hold over her husband, played by Mike Noble, palpable.

Macbeth himself, embodies this nihilism as he is destroyed by it. The evil he does - ordering the slaughter of innocents and the death of his closest comrade - is horrific even by the standard of Shakespeare’s tragedies.


As Macbeth’s crimes escalate, his suffering increases and that fantastic imagination grows ever more complex and inventive. His inevitable death promises punishment for his transgressions and relief from his torment.


This story of ambition, murder and witchcraft has certainly had a modern day makeover. If it has a weakness, it is that it gives too much weight to the visual and neglects the spoken.


A tale of ambition, murder and madness, it is also a play of words. Powerful, often beautiful words. And in this production, those words are sadly too often lost.


Not for the purists then, but it is a visual feast, and a brilliant example of how to bring this classic Shakespearian tragedy alive for the next generation and modern audience.


Between 20th February 2024 and 16th March 2024 ‘Macbeth’ will visit three venues in Guildford, Worthing and Oxford.


This is the tour dates:


Tuesday, 20th February 2024 to Sat, 24th February 2024: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford


Tuesday, 5th March 2024 to Fri, 8th March 2024: Connaught Theatre, Worthing


Tuesday, 12th March 2024 to Sat, 16th March 2024: Oxford Playhouse, Oxford.





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