Kicking-off the 75th anniversary season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park is 'The Scottish Play' - or 'Macbeth' if you're not one of the superstitious types!
The Scotland we're treated to here is a land steeped in war and feuding. Several container-like structures - perhaps used for shipments of arms and munitions - litter the stage as though they've been dropped by helicopter. One of them is actually tilted at an angle suggesting as much, or even suggesting that it's been there for some considerable time. The idea seems to be that this Scotland is so plagued by war, perhaps through generations, that people have adapted their lives to utilise the military detritus and now live in the rusting containers. And with modern weaponry on show, plus sound effects of screaming aircraft and bombs, it's pretty clear that this is a modern interpretation of the play and where its influences lie.
When Macbeth hosts a party for his monarch - prior to despatching him to a new and better Kingdom - lights are strung out along the back and sides of the stage in echoes of the film 'Apocalypse Now'. In particular, it reminded me of the scene in the film where the boat crew encounter a bridge under a frenetic bombardment, but yet the bridge itself is decorated with lights almost as if a party was about to be thrown. Antony Byrne seemed overly puzzled and somewhat subdued in his first few scenes, but quickly notched-up the power in this plagued and troubled character, and became every inch a psychotic killer once his wife had voiced the idea of him becoming King, and his destiny seemed written in the stars.
Sarah Woodward's Lady Macbeth proved sufficiently power-hungry and devious whilst cajoling her husband into committing regicide, and even provided a modicum of humour when trying to gloss over her husband's bizzare behaviour at a banquet. But I found her sleep-walking transition into a state of guilt less emotionally charged than one might have expected.
Macduff is played by Peter Duncan who's better known to many of us as a former presenter of the long-running children's TV magazine programme 'Blue Peter'. I have to confess that I've never seen Duncan performing in the theatre, so it was quite a revelation to find that his Macduff was studied and powerful - and I can only applaud an actor who can maintain character (and a straight face, even) when speaking about his children as 'chickens' while collapsing in grief at their untimely and hideous demise. Quite an achievement!
And I particularly enjoyed Chris Emmett's 'knock-knock' porter, who provided some finely-timed comic relief delivered in a low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way even through the haze of 'the morning after'.
Many of the soldiering types in this production are on the young side - not so much your average professional squaddie, or embittered seasoned campaigner, but more like raw recruits forced into the ranks through conscription. Short haircuts reinforce the impression, and only Macbeth, Macduff and the King seem to be of an age to have acquired any long-term military experience. This highlights Edward Kemp's directorial decisions which seem to have been focused on making the play more relevant and accessible, and I think he's succeeded. Though there will be those who find the modernisation process a bridge too far, I found Kemp's ideas stimulating and interesting, though I wouldn't go quite as far as to say that the production is definitive. Even if my impressions about the echoes of Vietnam are totally incorrect, it's not easy to ignore the war-weary tone of this thought-provoking production.
Apart from their 75th birthday bash, this season marks another landmark at the Open Air Theatre with Artistic Director, Ian Talbot, celebrating an astonishing 20 years at the helm - quite an achievement in such a demanding role and one that deserves considerable recognition. However, the celebrations have a double-edge to them because Talbot has decided to move on after this year's season – he'll be replaced by Timothy Sheader. No doubt Talbot will be sadly missed but, as it always the case in these events, there's also the promise and anticipation of a new direction at this address, as the managerial baton is passed on.