As a student, I acted in a brace of Shakespeare productions directed by the woman who later did me the honour of becoming my ex-wife. She was trying to set up a touring Theatre in Education company, so we rigorously pared the texts down to fit into a double English period. Our Macbeth clocked in at 85 minutes. Terry Hands's production for Clwyd Theatr Cymru stretches out to an hour and three-quarters, but is plainly aimed four-square at the same set-text market; it's fast, it's short and for the first fortnight of its run, most of its performances are scheduled that little bit earlier than normal matinées in order to form a handy substitute for a school's or college's afternoon classes.
The need to keep up a rattling pace dictates much of the performance style: Owen Teale's Macbeth seldom has the chance to insert much nuance into his sonorous delivery, and Neil Madden has to bark out Malcolm's catalogue of pretended character failings tersely. Similarly, the design is spare and stark: a bare, black-box stage with occasional lattices of white spotlights and billows of dry ice for the witches or the ghostly banquet scene; monochrome costumes – soldiers in black greatcoats and Norman helms – except for green trappings for the arboreally disguised English army. (This touch, interestingly, is not directly referred to at all; the entire Birnam Wood scene is cut down to a single line on audio-tape, in a piece of brazen reliance on audience pre-knowledge of the play.)
Where Hands's production of the Scottish play scores – and I am aware how insanely bizarre this observation sounds – is in being so palpably Welsh. The events do not take place in a Caledonian murk, but in a harsher atmosphere of outright blackness; Teale and Vivien Parry as Lady Macbeth lend their lines a rich, Cambrian orotundity, with Parry in particular investing a more finely nuanced sharpness to her words than most Scottish Lady M's; even the witches at a couple of points chant Welsh incantations. The force of this unashamed transposition more than makes up for the complete comic barrenness of the drunken Welsh porter.
Other than this central aspect, the evening consists of individual, momentary touches which are either vaguely interesting and enlightening or just as mildly flat: little details which, whether successful or not, are not permitted to detract from the straightforward representation of the production as a whole. The distinction to be drawn is that, for a general audience, "straightforward" means "solid but nothing special", whereas to its principal educational market it signifies something rather more useful in its dependability.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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