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Thursday, 9 April 2009

Review of Macbeth at Manchester's Royal Exchange

First of all, I must acknowledge that consuming a large pizza and half a bottle of red wine is not ideal preparation to sit through two hours of Shakespeare. So conditioned have I become that, like a Pavlovian dog, the very thought of the theatre automatically makes me think of having dinner at Grinch first, and whilst their "any pizza for a fiver oh and we'll throw in some very drinkable house red for another tenner" deal continues, I shall be there.

So perhaps my wits were slightly dulled; surely there can be no other reason for finding myself so lukewarm to a play that I have loved since I did it for GCSE. Even years of teaching it myself to GCSE re-sit students have failed to quench the power of this most accessible Shakespeare play.

Yet from the mninute the "witches" appear - supposedly three children, although at least one of them clearly wasn't - something is not quite right in Matthew Dunster's contemporary update of this violent play. The children are innocent until taken away and brutalised by soldiers, only to return as demonic creatures with the ability to foretell Macbeth's future and start the whole tragedy rolling. Although they play their parts well, some of their scenes are bemusing and rather laboured, such as the routine to Pink that kicks off the second half and the dubiously seedy gyrations that accompany Girls Aloud later in the same half.

Elsewhere, the violence of the play is chillingly portrayed; we are not spared the sight of children being abused and murdered, by sinister killers speaking Kosovan and wearing pig-masks. Some of the acting is rather hit and miss; Nicholas Gleaves has been criticised for an unconvincing performance in the lead role, although you can't deny that he looks good with his clothes off in an episode of bonus male nudity.

The ending is clever, avoiding the sense of anti-climax that can occur in Shakespeare plays after the baddie has been killed off and some kind of speech is made about looking to the future - here, this is handled well, closing the performance on a suitably menacing note.

It is always nice to see directors trying new things with Shakespeare but overall, the play rates as a "could do better". And never, ever book one of the bar-stool seats at the Royal Exchange if you plan to have a drink first.

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