Venue: Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate
There are few plays better known than Macbeth. However, it is a labour of love to such a renowned Shakespeare play and make it so unfamiliar to the audience that it feels like newly devised theatre. That is what director Jatinder Verma and Tara Arts have managed to achieve with this production of Macbeth. Without changing the words of the poet himself they have brought this play to the modern stage in a way that is difficult to do justice in simply describing and is worth seeing while you still can.
The director’s vision for the play itself is interesting; he hopes to explore British-Asian experience through a play that is a core work of the English canon. The delicate handling of a familiar, multicultural influence in place of the play’s staunch medievalism makes this production more accessible to a contemporary audience. The witches have been recast as Hijras, whom the program describes as a transsexual community legally recognised in India, whom ‘mischievously’ prophesise ‘fame and fortune’. This casting decision brought out a comic complexity in the writing (something usually overshadowed by attempts to gothicise the witches), reminding us that these roles would have been played by men on the Elizabethan stage. The comedy, in what is usually a dark introduction, immediately tells us that the Macbeth we know is going to be challenged through this performance on stage and is going to be given a new light.
The performance was then enhanced by tremendous acting from a small, talented cast. Lady Macbeth (Shaheen Khan) was unflinching and brilliant, arousing pity for a character often condemned solely as the villain. The ease with which she worked through this major part was wonderful to watch. Robert Mountford was a good foil for her as Macbeth and particularly excelled at the physical acting involved in his role. A disturbing eroticism was choreographed into the plotting of Duncan’s murder, too: when they meet again after the murder and he is covered with blood, he manages to paint her white clothes with it.
I thought Deven Modha also brought something interesting to his role as Malcolm, who was communicated as young, inexperienced and fragile in a way that I hadn’t seen in his part before.
I was expecting certain moments in the play to be emphasised: the dagger scene, the banquet scene and certain lines throughout. However, part of what made the production great was its new emphasis on often sidelined or cut moments from the full text – even ‘minor’ characters felt important. I think the size of the cast helped. Shalini Peiris played many of the servant roles and did so with a dialectic accent that distinguished her working-class figure from the higher-ranking aristocrats in the play. There was a lot of humour in her longer passages of speech and her presence was also felt when she was not centre stage, reminding us of a power injustice as well as Macbeth’s elevated status. Peiris’ Lady Macduff was also poignant, particularly in the scene of her murder, as her haunting scream resonated even after she was dragged off the stage.
The actors were not alone in their fantastic performance. Rax Timyr, solo musician, was on the set for the full length of the production, drumming and beatboxing throughout the entire play. Other than being impressive for his self-scrutiny, he allowed himself to respond to the characters on stage when appropriate and he felt like an integral part of the world the production had created.
The costumes were beautiful and the set was effective whilst minimalist. The choreographed fighting made the violence intense. Everything was good. I don’t know if I’m going to ever enjoy Macbeth again as much as I did on Tuesday night.