It’s not often that you see a production of a Shakespearean play that involves suited and booted Cockney gangsters, folk singers huddled in the corner of an East End bar, and a chap with a resemblance to Brad Pitt indulging in some gratuitous smooching and bottom-groping with a woman dressed like Mary Quant.
The production of Macbeth I witnessed last week was the first of what’s being billed as ‘Madness Season’ at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Directed by Neil Sheppeck, the same ensemble of actors will be performing a series of plays over the next few months, with Macbeth being the first. And if this idea intrigues you, keep your eyes peeled; The London Word will be attending the others in the season too, so we’ll let you know what we think.
The first thing that enthrals me is the set; an East End pub in Sixties gangland London, complete with shabby peeling wallpaper, dartboard, and the 1966 World Cup crackling from a black-and-white TV set. On stage seating gives some of the audience their own roles as pub regulars, positioning them in the thick of the action. And although at times this can seem slightly too close for comfort, it’s definitely effective, giving an atmosphere of intimacy and authenticity that makes the experience all the more voyeuristic.
There’s a lot of talent here; the actors are word-perfect, and the interaction between Lady Macbeth and her husband fizzes with affection and tension as their greed and then guilt causes them both to unravel. The boozy bargirl given an updated role of the ‘drunken porter’ in the original text is vulgar, charismatic and wonderful; her comedic routine as she both insults and crudely compliments audience members is a highlight of the entire performance.
But, whilst the juxtaposition of a contemporary setting with the original text was mostly effective, it has its problems at times; the constant references to battles between England and Scotland don’t translate, and left some audience members looking flummoxed. With such grand themes as honour, ambition, loyalty and greed, hammy acting is always a danger, and one that a couple of the company succumbed to on occasion; whilst I was besotted with Jack Bence’s Malcolm, my companion speculated that much of his character’s traits had been based on having watched Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels too many times.
The ‘three witches’ (two ragamuffins with a violin, acoustic guitar and a bundle of rags I assume was meant to be a baby) were another disappointment. Scenes from outside the boozer (such as Banquo’s assassination and Lady Macduff’s demise) were pre-filmed and projected onto a wall of the ‘pub’, but the shaky Blair Witch-style production left a lot to be desired.
But don’t let these few foibles and misfired ideas deter you. The Love & Madness production of Macbeth is a boldly ambitious and original reinterpretation of Shakespearean tragedy, and overall an endearing and enjoyable success.
Macbeth is showing until July 26 at:
Box Office: 020 8237 1111
Image by Luke Varley