Some fifteen years or so ago, I had occasion to run the text of Macbeth through a primitive word-processor spelling check. The line, "Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble" came out as "...and my firm negroes shall never treble." Lo and behold, after all this time, they have: in James Roose-Evans' production, staged in the inner bailey of Ludlow Castle, a trio of bearded, shaven-headed Afro-British men play the Witches and the Murderers.
Roose-Evans' sense of ritual, which so informed his production of Pericles in the same space last year, is here less obtrusive, although for instance the central apparition scene is staged as a full coven, with the three main Witches at the head of a body of thirteen. The air of formality, however, continues to pervade. The exigencies of playing to an outdoor audience of 1200 people demand a large, rather broad style of performance; add the sense of imposing historic surroundings, and the director's own spiritual preoccupations, and the result is that a number of performers (notably Gerard Logan's Banquo and Philip Grout's Ross) end up delivering their lines in an almost ostentatiously ceremonial manner. Nor does it help that the entire cast has been corralled into affecting Received Pronunciation accents; it is bearable among the American students who play assorted minor thanes, but has the odd effect of making Keith Dunphy's Macduff sound Danish – Dunphy is too busy playing the accent and the space to get much of an emotional handle on Macduff, so that his grief for his slaughtered family seems to come out of nowhere. Even the venerable Harry Towb as the Porter is audibly modifying his native Belfast accent just a touch.
Peter Lindford and Cathy Owen were cast as a pair when an earlier Macbeth dropped out; they work well together – when Macbeth admits to killing Duncan's stewards, one can spot Owen's Mady M furtively watching her husband, ready at any moment to help him out with a fainting fit, and Lindford hits a fine combination of rage, jadedness, briskness and distraction in the final act.
The surroundings add their own magic: light thickens and the crow makes wing to th'rooky wood just as Macbeth declares it does, and the fatal entrance of Duncan under Lady M's battlements is indeed croaked by a passing hoarse raven... although on Monday evening the air was delicate due largely to the spread of silage on neighbouring farmland. But too often for my taste, the sense of event ends up overtaking that of drama.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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