Macbeth – Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writer: William Shakespeare

Adaptation: Emily Burns

Director: Simon Godwin

As the chariot of war hurtles across the world, one would be mistaken for assuming battles of ancient Kings and nobles would be anything if not contemporary. Even now, in the wake of destruction by ‘ambitious’, folly men who leave permanent scars upon the land, Shakespeare’sMacbethresonates as profoundly as ever thanks to the clarity in delivery which, ideally, pries open the eyes of those still blinded to the mayhem surrounding them.

In entering a Scotland where civil war rages, audiences find themselves wandering through a battle recently won but a war still far from victorious. Stepping into the pre-set of Emily Burn’s adaptation ofMacbeth, Frankie Bradshaw’s design of burning rubble and smouldering vehicles surround enormous azure flags depicting the dystopian crest of the house of Macbeth, one immediately feels the presence of this production long before it is headline casting makes their emergence. An epic in every sense, the sounds of jet fighters skirting past mingle with the genuine sounds of the nearby Edinburgh airport and the occasional supernatural whisper and ripple of Christopher Shutt’s audio design give a taster of what is to come.

Flicking power cuts, emulated with Jai Morjaria’s lighting, conceal the weird sisters in their transitions, as the play that rules amongst all others opens its mouth and speaks. Foretelling of his rise to power, the three witches spark the events of prophecy and bloodshed as they wander and slip around the island stage, invisible to the soldiers having previously rhythmically paced the surrounding peripherals. The presence of the future king, current Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth draws a very real breath of excitement from the audience – but legendary stage and screen performer Ralph Fiennes treats it as a commonplace move, a man anticipatory from the battlefield, less ‘kingly’ than his companion, his erratic manner tempered with Steffan Rhodri’s forbearing Banquo, a stark contrast to the lissom Fiennes, their Macbeth somewhere between a tottering spider, with the precision of viper when required.

The witches are if anything, one of the more understated elements of the production – their war-torn clothes a symbol of the wider conflict away from these few men. Truly in the know but out of the bubble of direct influence – Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan, and Lola Shalam do their best to locate a presence with Lucy Cullingford’s movement direction but begin to stitch the areas where Macbethstruggles. Though commendably performed, Simon Godwin’s direction imparts little of original substance for them to manipulate, and does not always showcase some truly tremendous performances from Keith Fleming (Macbeth in a past life at the Citz) as Duncan, or their son Malcolm, carried well by Ewan Black.

But tremendous impression and control lies within Ben Turner’s MacDuff and Rhodri’s Banquo, who deservingly hold as firm a place of respect as Fiennes in aiding craft a Macbeth which hits all of the notes, and lifts familiarity to new heights with respectable performances that captivate – and in both cases, offer brief moments of fright and heightened emotion.

Hunched, whisky in hand, Fiennes perches themselves as much on a throne of bureaucracy than one of the ancient war, jittering with an initial sleekness to the mania that finds itself growing more erratic. The bravado and immediate presence of Fiennes never overwhelm co-stars, withdrawing into maintaining a Macbeth that explores the lust for power but reverts to a fractured boy, mewling at his Queen, returning to the warmth and safety of one who can offer some form of comfort, all while the once suppressed aggression and machismo seem to have been unbottled – with the only way to put a proverbial cork back on. And it’s going to be bloody.

AnyMacbeth worth its toil and salt must find itself a central gem in Lady Macbeth, a magnificent performance for Indira Varma, with an intensity and precision which channels the bards’ words like few others – Varma is flawless as Lady Macbeth. They become the theatrical matriarch of antagonism: brilliant and steadfast, manipulative and unhinged. In many ways, Varma is the core of this production. The untamed brutality and raw power of a woman’s self-control, eventually as fractured and dismantled as that of her king is by far the more terrifying prospect for some in the audience.

Every incarnation ofMacbeth, foul or fair, contributes something to the greater zeitgeist of the cultural pillar of Shakespeare’s finest work. So, what do Underbelly and Wessex Grove bring to the legacy of thunder and blood? Aside from two of the world’s finest stage performers and a handful of pyrotechnics put to tremendously earth-shaking use, Burns’ adaptation sharpens the dagger of Shakespeare’s story and words – opening the realms of theatre to broad audiences.

Macbethin this guise, may not do much unusual or new, but it paints the picture of a man desperately grasping for a seat of power as cleanly as any news broadcast today should be. It is near-impossible not to find a pang of recognition with the crossroad of civilian life in Ukraine or Gaza, colliding with the boot-stomps of national affairs.Macbethcascades rich language and stunning performances as frequently as Shakespeare’s mad dog King spills blood – a nightmare of the contemporary, in a lesson never learned from the past.

Runs until 27 January 2024 then tours | Image: Marc Brenner

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