Mull Little Theatre is ready for a final bow

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MacBeth ****


Art ***


IT WAS a perfect July night, last Wednesday evening at Mull Little Theatre. The show was over, the volunteer staff were tidying the little foyer, people stood around chatting as the last rays of evening sun sliced through the woods around the building and I couldn't resist a last, nostalgic look back into the tiny cowshed auditorium before I walked away for the last time. It's exactly 40 years since Barrie and Marianne Hesketh, two professional actors who had fallen in love with Mull after being judges at a drama festival there, decided to open a professional theatre in the old byre beside their guesthouse at Dervaig, which was once the town manse. Incredibly - through a mixture of sheer hard work by generations of actors and directors and dogged and passionate local support - their crazy little initiative survived and thrived, outliving Marianne Hesketh, who died in 1984, and surviving Barrie's departure from the island a year later.

Now, though, it's time for Mull Theatre Company to move on, to a fine new base in Aros Forest near the island metropolis of Tobermory; and so, some time in September, it will be curtains at last for this tiny 42-seat theatre space, with a stage so small that it can barely accommodate more than three actors. The company are not leaving without regrets - the Little Theatre is full of happy memories. For arcane reasons to do with Scottish Arts Council funding strategy, and the historic stinginess of Argyll and Bute Council towards the summer theatre season, their beautiful new building at Druimfin is not to be described or funded as a theatre, although it will contain a performance space. Instead, it will be known as a "production centre", a base for the company's Scotland-wide touring activity, which the Arts Council is happy to fund. It's unlikely that there will ever again be a summer theatre season on Mull on the pattern pioneered by the Heskeths. Mull Theatre's director Alasdair McCrone is delighted, though, that the company will continue to be able to produce theatre on Mull, and to perform not only across Scotland, but in venues around its home island. He hopes the move to Tobermory will bring the company's work, and the creative and educational buzz it creates, even closer to the heart of island life.

It's with a distinct nod to the past, though, and to the unique atmosphere of the Little Theatre, that Alasdair McCrone has chosen to build his final season there around a tiny, jewel-like production of Macbeth, adapted for a cast of five.

A legendary puppet version of Macbeth was one of the greatest hits of the Hesketh era and Alicia Hendrick's remarkable design for this new stripped-down version of the play uses the full depth of the space behind the theatre's little stage. She creates a dark, sinister double hall of mirrors, lit by lurid flashes of golden light, that perfectly reflects the terrible inner world of dreams, illusions and violent imaginings that grips Macbeth's mind from his first encounter with the witches.

It has to be said that the effort to tell Shakespeare's great story with only five actors, plus a couple of extras, sometimes leads McCrone to extreme measures. The porter appears only by way of a tiny video screen; the bloody soldier who reports Macbeth's victory in the opening scene is a shivering filmed image on a bloodstained sheet; the show's single presiding witch, played with terrific demonic force by Fiona Colliss, can only be multiplied into three with the clever use of distorting mirrors; and the acting is a shade uneven, sometimes matching the intensity of the production, sometimes losing focus a little.

In the end, though, this is a production that makes a tremendous virtue of necessity, using its limited resources, and its need to range across different media, to plunge deep into the nightmarish and delusional landscape of Macbeth's mind.

The visual images are often breathtaking, Martin Low's complex, eerie music and soundscape haunt the mind. The Mull Company can be proud of a closing production that exploits the rugged, claustrophobic potential of the Little Theatre as thoroughly and imaginatively as any show I've ever seen there.

Also in the late-summer repertoire at Dervaig this season is a brisk and cheerful production of the global smash-hit Art, Yasmina Reza's deft 90-minute account of how three upmarket male friends in Paris fall out, after one of them invests 200,000 francs in a white-on-white abstract painting. The trick with Reza's play is to prevent it from dwindling into a banal bourgeois whine about the excesses of modern art, and to shift the focus swiftly to the bigger issues of friendship, power and change that underlie the drama. However, McCrone's production doesn't always pull that off, allowing Alan Steele to camp up the role of Serge, the picture-buyer, in a thoroughly stereotyped way.

It's difficult, though, to resist the well-turned wit and perceptiveness of Reza's script, as it races on towards its slick but not entirely cynical conclusion; and the actors finally gather themselves to a fine old pitch of middle-aged male angst and energy, offering audiences a sharp reminder of the stresses of post-modern urban life, as they head off home through the peace of a glorious Mull sunset.

• Macbeth and Art are in repertoire at Mull Little Theatre, Dervaig, until 6 September.