I've seen a lot of Shakespeare in the West End recently - this week alone, a new version of Hamlet, with a fine Ed Stoppard in the lead. And reviewing plays in the West End for much of the time, means one can become blinkered to what's going on in other areas of our theatrical industry. Because there is a thriving world beyond the confines of the West End which not only provides a vehicle for our highly talented actors, but proves a rich reward for audiences who are willing to venture out and take a chance - in much the same way as they do anyway with West End shows!
Still, for many people, 'fringe' productions are erroneously synonymous with amateurism. If that's your 'take', it’s time to think again. A prime example of the quality on offer is 'Macbeth', currently playing at Theatro Technis, a small community theatre in Camden, just a few minutes bus ride from the West End, and a conveniently short walk from Mornington Crescent tube station.
It's often been said that tackling 'Macbeth' (or 'The Scottish Play' as those with a superstitious inclination are still prone to call it) is ‘the last resort of a failing company’. Because 'Macbeth' draws audiences, it's considered to be a good bet to bring in cash at the box office. But this is certainly no failing company, quite the opposite in my opinion, and I would imagine that the last thing on their minds was making shed-loads of money out of it.
With considerable advice to steer clear of Shakespeare for his directorial debut, Tarek Iskander nevertheless chose wisely in selecting 'Macbeth'. Not only does it remain a fascinating play which audiences really do enjoy, but his obvious passion for the piece has motivated an already keen and talented cast to deliver a show that is a worthy rival to the theatrical juggernauts of the West End - and produced on a shoestring budget, to boot.
Written by Shakespeare around 1605/06, 'Macbeth' is about ambition, corruption, and the distinction between tyranny and kingship. With a military-based plot, it also contains a sizeable amount of violence (much of which thankfully happens off-stage).
When Macbeth defeats an invasion force, Duncan, King of Scotland, proclaims him thane of Cawdor, confirming a prediction by a group of witches Macbeth has recently bumped in to. And when Mrs Macbeth (or Lady Macbeth, to give her her proper title) hears about things, her smouldering ambition catches fire, and she cajoles (or more correctly, humiliates) her husband into murdering the King, and taking the crown for himself. From that point on, Macbeth's fate seems inevitable as he's forced into further murders to cover his tracks, and his guilt drives him close to madness.
The first thing which hits you right from the start about this production of 'Macbeth', is the confidence and ability of the cast which Iskander and his team have astutely assembled. Professionalism shines through in almost every department, topped-out with the dominating stage presence of Stephen Eliot-MacDonald in the lead as Macbeth. With a powerful voice, used judiciously, Eliot-MacDonald gave us a proud, capable and distinguished warrior that few would dare challenge. However, close to tears near the end, he also managed to persuade us that Macbeth isn't a totally rotten apple, and to successfully rally our pity for the character.
Eliot-MacDonald is enviably well-supported by the entire cast. In particular though, Cecilia Colby's seductive Lady Macbeth defined exquisite persuasive skills which would have tigers jumping through hoops; Titus Adam provided the appropriate paternalistic balance to Macbeth's tyranny as King Duncan; and Guy Moore as MacDuff was a convincing ‘tyrant-toppler’ (though one suspects Macbeth may well have ‘thrown’ the fight).
Tarek Iskander's direction is pacey without being hurried, makes good use of the available space, and orchestrates the cast in a clear, distinctive way. The fight scenes are carefully engineered, and more effective for being brief. Iskander's approach has been to develop a universally applicable 'Macbeth' rather than invest it with dubious present-day metaphors. At the same time, he's not 'played safe', but taken some carefully judged and acceptable risks.
First, two of the witches have been dropped, and the remaining one (ably played by Nathalie Pownall) not only helps move props around, but also stays near the audience in character for the duration of the play, keeping watch on the events she's predicted, but incapable of preventing. As the body count rises, she keeps a gruesome tally of the butchered by hanging their shoes on meat hooks. And after the interval at the start of Act IV, the audience were asked to stand at the side of the acting area while Macbeth meets with the witch again. In effect, we were playing the roles of apparitions. Although it was an interesting idea which drew the audience into the action, when we had to return to our seats at the end of the scene it disrupted the flow a little as we all settled, and hurriedly took off our coats and stashed our bags. Still, these were risks worth taking - after all, progress in the theatre doesn't happen on paper!
In many ways, this is a first rate production. The committed team-work shows through because Iskander has given everyone room by constructing a sensible but strong strategic vision. The result is immensely watchable and enjoyable, and a production everyone can justifiably take pride in. Looking around to gauge the reaction of the audience as I frequently do during a play, it was obvious that they were all completely absorbed by and focused on the action unfolding before them - a fitting tribute which is often denied to more glamorous and costly West End productions.
On a final note for regular readers, in marked contrast to the volumes of smoke-effect which poured over the stage during 'Hamlet' at the New Ambassadors this week, in 'Macbeth' there was not a puff, nay not even the merest morsel of any smoke effect at all, and nor was any required. Rapture!
Macbeth runs its excellent course at Theatro Technis until Saturday 18th March. Well-worth spending a few meagre quid to see - you won't be disappointed!