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REVIEW: Macbeth by Tread the Boards comes to the Attic Theatre, Stratford

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I HAVE seen many appalling and ridiculous productions of Macbeth, maybe more of this play than of any other. Peter O’Toole knocking down the set at The Old Vic and Jane Horrocks being required to wee on a raised walkway at Greenwich Theatre before some ‘gentlewomen’ mopped it up are memorable for all the wrong reasons. More recently in Stratford we saw King Duncan in Act I receive a messenger lying in bed with children round the bed; we saw another Stratford production with children in nets/trapeses and gawped at Macbeth at the top of a stepladder on an empty stage in Act V spouting words of sound and fury.

The Macbeths. Photo: Andrew Maguire
The Macbeths. Photo: Andrew Maguire

This production by Tread the Boards Company is memorable for all the right reasons. It is great to see Shakespeare back at The Attic and even greater that the opening nights of the production played to good houses. Directed by John-Robert Partridge, there is plenty of power but no gimmickry. All the tricky bits are dealt with amazingly well. No one laughed at ‘he has killed me, mother’, because sensibly Macduff’s son did not run off stage at that point: a blindingly obvious but rarely seen interepretation.

The Witches. Photo: Andrew Maguire
The Witches. Photo: Andrew Maguire

I have to admit that my heart always sinks in anticipation of Act IV, scene iii, the scene where Malcolm is testing out Macduff. It almost always seems interminable, Malcolm’s ruse too extreme and unlikely and the announcement of the death of Lady Macduff and her children a jarring interruption. Not so here. John-Robert Partridge did the bold thing of playing Macduff – the hardest part to play – himself and the interplay between himself as Macduff and Ben Armitage as a powerful but restrained Malcolm was electric. Added to this was Ross’s intrusion with restrained posture and verse beautifully spoken by Edward Manning so I was forced to think again. The power of the scene was enhanced by the memory of a heavily pregnant Lady Macduff splendidly played by Catherine Prout, even more poignant to those in the know who realised that the Macduffs were being played by a real life husband and wife.

There are all sorts of other lovely things in this production. Pete Meredith’s interactions as Banquo with Fleance were beautiful. Phil Leach was a credible King Duncan and Daniel Wilby an effective Macbeth. The relationship between the Macbeths is always key to the success of a production. Instead of going for the now rather clichéd metaphor of sex as a metaphor for violence and vice versa, there was always an emotional distance between this couple and as audience members we were never quite convinced by the sincerity of the kisses between them. Alexandra Whitworth was psychologically convincing as Lady Macbeth, her coldness and detachment clearly ultimately leading to her madness and suicide. Partridge was brilliant as Macduff: very still physically with piercing but deep set probing eyes.

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