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Macbeth (Susan Elkin reviews)

William Shakespeare. Abridged by Moira Buffini.
society/company: National Youth Theatre of Great Britain (NYT) (directory)
performance date: 20 Nov 2018
venue: Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH

It’s a notoriously difficult play to bring off. Perhaps that’s the reason for its reputation for ‘unluckiness’. I have often said that I’ve never seen a production which really – really – worked. Well, now I have.

Abridged by Moira Buffini (hardly any English scene, praise be) and pithily directed by Natasha Nixon this version is terrific – maybe the best Macbeth I’ve ever seen. It’s full of fresh, very effective ideas such as overtly doubling the witches with the assassins and casting this talented company in an imaginatively gender fluid way. I loved the emergence of the bloody sergeant from a pile of writhing bodies and the popping out, like a grotesque birth, of the apparitions from the skirts of a huge stilted figure. I was less enamoured by the tree at the back of Mayou Trikeritoi’s set which reminded me of Jack’s beanstalk but it’s a minor point.

This production gives us a female Macbeth (Olivia Dowd) in a same sex relationship with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Lady Macbeth. Both are fine actors, totally on top of the verse and able to make every line clear and laden with meaning. Dowd’s mood swings as we watch her spiralling into tyranny are immaculately observed and, often, powerfully understated. And her final fight with Oseloka Obi (directed by Kate Waters) as Macduff is so convincing that it seems quite surprising that she’s on her feet for a curtain call a few moments later.

Watch out for the highly talented Aidan Cheng. I’ve now seen him in all three 2018 NYT rep company shows and I’m certain we shall be seeing a lot more of him very soon. Here he plays a hideously menacing – terrifying in fact – first witch wearing a ballet skirt, football socks and platform heels. He leers, threatens, simpers … and it’s sinister. I liked Jeffrey Sangalang’s lithely simian second witch scuttling round the stage like a spider too. And Simran Hunjun’s third witch is extraordinary. Hunjun has a lot of sleek dark hair which forms part of her rigid red costume – very ingenious. She too is very unsettlingly creepy.

Max Pappenheim’s sound design is a crucial part of the mix with lots of thunder rumblings and disconcerting clicks. It will be a long time before I forget the sound of Aidan Cheng gleefully twisting the Rubik’s cube which has fallen from the hand of Fred Hughes-Stanton (another good performance) as the murdered Macduff child.

I loathed Victoria’s Knickers, the last play I saw 2018 National Youth Theatre with a couple of weeks ago. This outstanding Macbeth shows just what heights this talented company can reach if you give them a decent play to work on and material which requires something subtler from the cast than attitude and expletives.

I have to say, though, that while I commend the NYT’s determination to be inclusive and diverse there are a couple of actors in this company whose voice work isn’t very strong – and I’ve now observed it in three different plays although I’m not going to name them. To what extent this could be rectified with further training I don’t know but I doubt they will go straight into the industry in speaking roles as the majority of this group certainly will.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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