As Told By’s “Macbeth” is presently playing every evening at C on Chambers Street. This production gets off to a flying start by being at least physically here in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival is currently bussing out theatregoers to the Highland Showground for its “2008: Macbeth”; whilst those with more money than imagination may opt to voyage via bus and boat to Inchcolm island (a la Richard Demarco’s 1989 production), to experience the reality of what Macbeth might have been like had it been set on a small island.
Macbeth is so rich a play that it cannot ever be edited without losing something vital. Everything is important. You have to go slowly and savour each line. It can be also unforgiving if you are stingy with the cast, particularly during the banquet scene. Because this is a student performance, hailing from Bristol, and they hurtle at full speed through the play, one might prepare for a second-rate Macbeth, but this production is actually not so bad. It is enjoyable at least as an interpretation – it would probably be incomprehensible as an introduction to the play. Duncan (James Lewis) has disappeared after one scene and insufficient time is spent on explaining how Macbeth has suddenly appeared in his place after his death.
“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” This production is randomly set during WW2 and this does not initially make the best of sense. As most Scottish troops were overseas during the war, this Macbeth cannot help resembling an overly melodramatic episode of Dad’s Army with a Scotch setting. Malcolm’s men could conceivably burst into a rendition of “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Macbeth?” Lance-Corporal Jones should really materialise to gibber “don’t panic” after Lady Macbeth has commited suicide.
Yet the setting soon begins to lose its incongruity. The stiff upper lips of Duncan’s military command contrast with this Macbeth’s (Nick Finegan) cowardice and indecision. Behind every Macbeth is a strong woman, and this Macbeth only seizes the throne because he is more frightened of his wife than of being executed for treason. At one point, he is pacing around the stage, mortified by what is happening to him, a single white feather prominently caught on the fabric of his trousers.
At first Lady Macbeth (Rosalind Russell) looks like a spiritualist of the period’s middle class, as she stands (no doubt in her drawing room) demanding to be filled with cruelty. This play is generous with the surprise of Castle Macduff, understanding that it is one of the most important scenes in the play. Macduff’s struggle to conquer his deeply real grief here invites the squarest of comparisons with the Macbeths’ messy anguish at their own ghosts and visions. Losing a child is a thousand times more frightening than spotting a ghost at your dinner party, and Macduff henceforth proves infinitely greater than Macbeth when called upon to screw his courage to the sticking place.
The witches of this play have marched straight out of the Women’s Land Army. They are chuckling like a river at their social betters, perhaps unimpressed by how out of touch the ruling class now are in the age of Beveridge. Their prophesies are broadcast on BBC wireless.
This year’s Antigone was also set in WW2, and both productions generate a mysterious unease by ostensibly putting the gory old tyrants Creon and Macbeth in charge of our liberal democracy’s greatest triumph over tyranny. They make it seem unsettlingly natural that such fascistic characters might have been found implementing the Beveridge Report. Yet we ourselves have to decide the force of the message: replacing Churchill with Macbeth may be cynicism or merely a choice of costume.