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Chichester’s bold new Macbeth

A glass stage, running witches and a fresh take on the lead roles - the exciting new CFT production of Macbeth has plenty of innovations

“He’s basically Walter White in Breaking Bad, without the meth,” I tell my husband, on what turns out to be an appropriately hellish drive up the A27.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

Macbeth was one of my degree texts, my husband only knows the famous lines, but we’re both excited to see the new contemporary production at Chichester Festival Theatre staring John Simm and Dervla Kirwan.

It doesn’t disappoint, with some innovative staging and a fresh take on the familiar characters.

Entering the theatre, it is immediately apparent this will be something different. The stage itself is glass, with lumpy heath-like ground set underneath. During some murders and the witches’ famous cauldron scene this cracks open and we get a sense of being close to hell.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

The theme of nature thrown awry by Macbeth’s ungodly actions is played to the full in the production with storm clouds and tangled tree roots and the like projected on a glass backdrop. The frequent textual references to doubling are enhanced by many of these images appearing mirrored like Rorschach ink blots. Sound effects of crows and storms further ramp up the atmosphere.

Costumes are of an indistinct 20th century period which worked for me, apart from the trilbies which make one character bear a distractingly comic similarity to Inspector Clouseau.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

The lighting is excellent, picking out individuals in stark modern style. I loved the use of the glass screen divider as a window in certain scenes which allowed a second set of action to be recessed behind the first. Lady Macbeth’s debut appearance, spotlit and statue-like in this alcove while a scene of fondness takes place between the king and members of his entourage was truly chilling.

Later she goads Macbeth into murder as their guests banquet at a brightly light table in the glassed off room. With the king in the centre, about to be betrayed, the tableaux bears a, surely deliberate, similarity to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Simm (who I loved in TV’s Life on Mars) makes a subtler than usual Macbeth in earlier scenes, more apparently mild mannered than we’re used to for the part (maybe he got my Walter White memo) and he manages to draw out some surprising humour in places.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

He grows more forceful towards the climax of the play however and uses body language to great effect, accentuating certain phrases with turns of his dagger before slumping cynical and half spent on his throne for the ‘tomorrow…’ speech. This we get projected large behind him. It’s too cinematic for my taste but it does mean you get to see his facial expressions more clearly.

My husband, without the baggage of having seen more shouty Macbeths, was really wowed by Simm’s performance.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

I thought Kirwan outstanding as Lady Macbeth, her voice slipping between honeyed and hissing in the early scenes so rather than the witch-like way she’s sometimes portrayed the character has something of the two-faced politician about her as she welcomes the king, which felt an appropriately modern interpretation. Kirwan later gives the best sleep walking scene I’ve seen in the role, starting and twitching as she relives the Lady’s dark deeds.

Picture by Manuel Harlan

Some of the supporting cast, particularly in early scenes, were too softly spoken. My husband and I both found ourselves straining to catch parts of the dialogue. Beatriz Romilly as young Malcolm gives a strong performance however and the casting of a woman in the role helps him seem fresh-faced and vulnerable.

The witches are an energetic trio, quite literally running rings round Macbeth and I thought it a clever touch that they become the messengers reporting the bad news as his perceived invincibility starts to crumble.

It’s a bold staging which won’t suit hardened traditionalists but for a play this famous it’s great to have a fresh approach and a few surprises.

Macbeth is at Chichester Festival Theatre until Sat 26 Oct. Tickets are from £10.

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