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Macbeth (Dock X)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd March 2024)

It probably seemed a good idea at the time. Use a “non-theatre space” to present the Scottish Play which most of the last few generations have been exposed to at school. Put a famous name in the lead role and tour it around the country. Bring something special to everybody, and if the star name doesn’t sell it, the fact everybody knows it and schools will want to bring groups, will.

Sadly, this just did not work for the monkey.

It can split the many, many productions of “Macbeth” it has seen over the years into two categories. “Scottish” or “Military.” The first is all “Rob Roy” accents with hints of tartan, the second is mostly grey outfits with as many Scottish accents as they can muster. This is second category, and low on the accents to the point of inconsiderately inconsistent.

Director Simon Godwin, whose “Antony and Cleopatra” at the National Theatre so impressed the monkey, here grapples and loses. The effect is of a group of schoolteachers who have never worked professionally staging a production for the younger years 7 to 9 children, with a few sixth formers recruited as witches to make up the numbers.

Ralph Fiennes in the title role is the old English teacher building up to retirement. Until bursting into sudden glorious life late on with “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” he approaches every major speech as if underlining it in pencil for the class. His delivery appears through the fog of strong painkillers, his dagger going un-grasped both in his mind and performance. Later, his demise is an example of the fight-director's craft at its least convincing - at least for those in the side blocks. Who knew anyone could die from a machete below the armpit?

Lady Macbeth has Indira Varma on headteacher form. Clearly her Ocado delivery has not arrived and she is taking her irritation out on everybody available. Landed with a stunningly cheap looking ‘smart’ dress to boot (by set and costume designer Frankie Bradshaw), no wonder Varma is out-of-sorts.

There is no chemistry or sense of ambition from the pair, alone or as a couple. It is all about putting the text out there so we can understand it is to be spoken and not read. Interpretation is for when one is older, apparently.

Steffan Rhodri is another victim of strange, as his resurrection appears to be a direct re-incarnation of Frankenstein’s Monster, with a dash of Herman Munster and Lurch from the Addams Family thrown in. Following his earnest turn as a P.E. teacher drafted in to help, it is quite confusing.

Even more baffling is the first appearance of Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya and Lola Shalam as the three witches. Clearly, they had been messing about in the chemistry lab just before the show as they enter choking following a loud off-stage explosion. Crawling around on the floor, they then struggle to deliver the opening lines of the play either coherently - or in relevant fashion to what follows.

Later, the after-effects make them forget their famous spell (actually, a good cut, the monkey finds that bit ridiculous as it is to do with making a herbal potion not dissecting wildlife) but allows them to float about a few scenes to recover.

Keith Fleming as Duncan and Ewan Black as Malcolm fare a lot better, both getting a decent crack at both verse and character; Fleming allowed a regal costume unlike the dressing-up-box robes Macbeth and his Lady get when they ascent the throne.

A couple of decently staged scenes in England in the second half improve the overall impression, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design in such a difficult space is as impressive as the high-quality (if expensive) programme the show sells.

Alas, when a director chooses to have actors carrying tree branches from the back of the theatre down the steps and onto the stage to represent the curse in action, the monkey must draw a line. Even most self-respecting high-school drama teachers know that is literalism taken too far, and a confirmation of creative failure.

Not even full of sound and fury, but certainly signifying nothing.

1 star.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner. Used by kind permission.

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