I was, I have to admit, a little worried as I made my way down the familiar set of stairs at 45 Flinders Lane last night.

The idea of an all-male Macbeth, set in a jail, has some cheesy potential.  It could have been cheesier than a deep fried wheel of King Island Blue Brie.  But a number of my most trusted carrier pigeons had informed of its excellence.  And, I’m happy to say, they were right.

From the moment I entered the theatre I was overwhelmed by the energy, intelligence and courage of this production.  Manbeth is ensemble theatre at its best.  There are no ‘outstanding’ performances here; and I mean that as high praise.  This is a murky, muddy world in which every player must slip and slide in and out of multiple characters in order to keep his head above water.  This requires theatricality – genuine theatricality – a quality which this production summons up in spades.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say I saw more of it in the first five minutes of Manbeth than can be squeezed from entire mainstage productions.

And the interpretation fits the text perfectly.  I understood immediately – from looking at the row of bare wooden benches, the dilapidated, stained white wall along the back of the space, the ensemble in their matching prison uniforms, the simplicity of the lighting with its long black shadows – that I had entered a disenchanted, Hobbesian world in which power was the only available language.  These naked men (often literally) are little more than a pack of dogs.  They circle one another, waiting for a sign to start tearing at each others throats.  This image is occasionally made concrete throughout the production when the ensemble bark, howl and play out canine tableaux.  Of course this is a mainstay of prison drama: the yard, the cellblock, these are dog eat dog places.

Like Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, this version of the Scottish Play seems to suggest that we could – any of us – in a given moment become a Macbeth or a Lady Macbeth.  And history, having begun with violence (rather like the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey), is destined to endlessly repeat a pattern of violence, suppression and revolution.  To me this is the difference between interpretation and window-dressing.  These days we see far too much of the latter, attempts to ‘modernise’ a text, to let it ‘speak’ once more (as if a true classic could forget its voice?).  It is like changing the colour of the curtains or moving the furniture around and expecting the shape of the room to change.  An interpretation, on the other hand, preserves the original intention or spirit of the text.  Rather than bringing it forward to us, it takes us back to it.  In this sense Manbeth is a triumph: it is hands down the strongest, most supple interpretation of The Scottish Play I’ve seen in a long while.

A few directional things I’d like to applaud.  First, clever use of space.  Too many shows at fortyfivedownstairs back themselves into a corner or play in a needlessly restricted space.  Manbeth manages to use the whole space effortlessly.  And I’ve never seen actors climb up those goddamn pillars before!  Second, I liked the way in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were split in two (good & bad).  It worked particularly well during their soliloquies, but also helped provide an extra layer of complexity in terms of character motivation and imagery throughout.  For example, with Banquo’s murder I got to see an image of Macbeth holding himself back, as if he wanted to stop what he had set in motion but could not.  Third, the use of all-male cast.  In any all-male scenario the issue of homoeroticism will inevitably raised.  Kudos to this production for tackling it head on: rather than a sprinkling of ‘tick the box’ moments there was a genuine thread woven right through the fabric of the piece.

Manbeth exceeded my expectations in every way.  If you like your theatre docile, pre-masticated and lifeless then it’s probably not for you.  However, if you want to be shaken by the scruff of the neck (until it almost hurts) then this is your show.

NB: My only reservation was the name.  Manbeth just doesn’t have the right ring?  It summons up images of men rolling around in baked beans or something.   Can anyone come up with a better one?

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