Theatre review: Macbeth

A simple stage with a hint of an old-fashioned hospital room, and a cradle containing a dead child, front and centre; a cast of only five, focusing on the mixture of psychological trauma and supernatural soliciting that drives Shakespeare's most luridly poetic tragedy. And just one actor - the remarkable Robert Elkin, in a white face streaked by coal-black tears - playing almost all the spirits and victims outside the tight circle of the six main characters, from the three witches (combined into one) to the Prince Malcolm, Banquo's son Fleance, and Lady Macbeth's troubled doctor.

Nicole Cooper (Lady Macbeth) and Kirk Bage (Macbeth) PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

This is Gordon Barr’s new production of Macbeth, playing on the Botanics main stage as part of the Bard In The Botanics season; and although its intense hundred-minute take on this most famous of plays has its disappointing moments, it shows a level of invention that sometimes takes the breath away with its risk-taking boldness.

Macbeth ****

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Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Before the play as we know it even begins, we see a re-enactment of the tragedy that might have triggered the drama, as Nicole Cooper’s passionate yet vulnerable Lady Macbeth approaches the cradle, and finds her beloved baby dead.

Here, and throughout the whole show, Juta Pranulyte’s remarkable soundtrack weaves ominous sounds of battle, of babies’ cries and of women weeping, through and around our heads, on the woodland slope where we sit.

Then the story begins to take shape, with Alan J Mirren’s Duncan morphing smoothly into Macduff, Emilie Patry’s impressive female Banquo into Lady Macduff; and Elkin always watching terrifyingly from the corners of the action, like some shape-changing spirit of justice or revenge bent on bringing Macbeth to his doom.

In this context, Kirk Bage’s Macbeth often seems strangely subdued, never given the chance to establish himself as the mighty warrior hero of Shakespeare’s early scenes, and hemmed in from the start by his own limitations, and by grim intimations of doom.

Every one of Lady Macbeth’s scenes is played to the hilt, though; the sleepwalking sequence chills the blood, as does Lady Macbeth’s appearance as a stricken observer at the death of Lady Macduff and her children. And If the final scenes of this sharply-cut version seem abrupt, and suffer from the absence of some of Shakespeare’s perfectly-paced poetry, the overall effect is strikingly raw and vivid; nor is there any consoling coda here about the return of good governance to Scotland, or about Malcolm’s royal progress to Scone, to be crowned.

*Until 30 July