Theatre reviews: The Macbeths | Spamalot | Pleading

DOMINIC HILL of the Citizens' is one of the finest directors of main-stage classic productions ever to work in Scotland; but for this new vision of Shakespeare's Macbeth, co-created with dramaturg Frances Poet, he turns to the most intimate kind of studio theatre, and to a brief 70-minute version of the text played out around the sweaty darkness of the bed where the Macbeths make love, and conjure up hatred and horror, in equal measure.

Citizens Theatre Glasgow
The Macbeths: Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd 
Image by Alex Brady
Citizens Theatre Glasgow The Macbeths: Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd Image by Alex Brady

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow **** | King’s Theatre, Edinburgh *** | Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

In a sense, this is Macbeth as a shared bad dream, a nightmare of ambition turned murderous that blights and destroys everything around it. To present anything like the story of Macbeth with just two players requires some strange shifts and stratagems, of course, supported by Stuart Jenkins’s bleak, smoky lighting, and Tom Penny’s frightening sound design. So sometimes, the couple take to an old reel-to-reel tape recorder in the drawer under the bed, which plays a soundtrack of their most horrific murders; another drawer is full of blood, that steadily smears and destroys the sheets and pillows. Sometimes, they act out scenes involving other characters, as if rehearsing, remembering, or even laughing at them. And sometimes, they attack one another with a terrible ferocity, like victims of post traumatic stress trying to kill their partners in sleep.

Yet for all the complexity of the dream landscape they must create, Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd, as the Macbeths, rarely seem confused or distracted by it; their focus on the central tragedy of a couple destroyed by their failure to heed their own inner moral misgivings is absolute, and sometimes terrifying. The Macbeths is not a perfect show; it has a roughness that sometimes seems deliberate, sometimes the consequence of the sheer difficulty of the task it sets itself. Yet it ends with a profound sense of human tragedy and waste that is often absent from larger and more lavish productions; and offers a rich evening of theatre for anyone who loves Macbeth, and also loves to see it reborn, in ever more challenging forms.

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    If Macbeth is famous for its images of darkness, Monty Python’s Spamalot – the musical “lovingly ripped off”, so it says, from the film Monty Python And The Holy Grail – famously presents a much more genial view of the so-called dark ages. Now a dozen years old, dear old Spamalot is still attracting large audiences wherever it goes; and although the whole thing is just a merry spoof on the Arthurian legend, extended to fill an evening, it does its own thing with a grace, good nature, and healthy scepticism about all things British, that fully explains its longevity.

    Ashley Nottingham’s choreography deliberately deploys every stage-musical cliche in the book with a wit and precision that’s delightful to watch; Bob Harms and Sarah Harlington do the show proud, this time round, as the elegant posh-boy king and the celebrity-hungry Lady Of The Lake. And with just 13 actors and a four-strong live band, Spamalot delivers the kind of evening that leaves audiences tapping their feet, and much more inclined to look on the bright side of life.

    The couple at the heart of Rob Drummond’s new play Pleading, the latest lunchtime show from A Play, A Pie And A Pint, are no Arthur and Guinevere, or Lord and Lady Macbeth; although he adores her a shade too much, and she certainly has her ambitions. Freya and Michael, brilliantly played by Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron, are on a backpacking tour of the world when they find themselves in jail somewhere in south-east Asia on charges of drug-smuggling. They insist they are innocent; their lawyer –the wonderful Nicole Cooper – says they have no case, and will face the death penalty if convicted, so had better plead guilty, in return for a lesser sentence of life imprisonment.

    Like all Rob Drummond’s work, Pleading involves an element of pure game-playing with the audience’s expectations; over a bare 45 minutes, the plot offers more absorbing and credible twists than the average 500-page crime novel. Yet it also deals with serious matters of life and death, love and lies, entitlement and the loss of it, interwoven with sheer emotional and financial desperation in the finest play of the autumn lunchtime season so far.

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    The Macbeths is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 14 October; Spamalot at the King’s, Edinburgh, final performances today; Pleading is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 3-7 October