“Something wicked this way comes…” It’s Merely Theatre, as they tour their brand new production of the Scottish Play in rep with Much Ado About Nothing. Macbeth is an incredibly popular Shakespearean choice this year (I’ve now seen four versions already in 2018, with the Globe’s winter season offering still to come), with thoughts of tyrannical leaders and divided countries almost constantly on our minds it’s little wonder. As ever, Merely bring their genderblind approach to casting and strip back the story to accommodate a cast of six.
The three Weird Sisters have assembled, waiting for Macbeth and Banquo’s arrival; battle has been raging and King Duncan has a title as well as thanks to bestow on Macbeth, one of this favoured thanes, but following an encounter with the mysterious & magical trio Macbeth and his wife are left wanting more. Plans are formed and carried out at lighting speed, seeing the murderous couple rocket to the monarchy, leapfrogging Duncan’s son Malcolm as he’s suspected of patricide and hiding out in England. But “blood will have blood”, and Macbeth can barely keep track of the loose ends his actions have left – all the while Lady Macbeth’s guilt is showing itself in her bizarre sleepwalking routines. Malcolm and Macduff (Thane of Fife) resolve to invade and rid Scotland of its bloody ruler.
Given that time is quite an important factor in the play (Macbeth himself is consumed by it; reliving the past, imagining the future, and eventually running out of it), Merely’s more compact version adds an extra little something in that department – the sense of urgency to first kill Duncan, and then to hold onto power, is ramped up as scenes pass by at speed. Rather than creeping “in this petty pace from day to day”, events quickly snowball and get out of hand. It also makes it feel slightly more action-packed, which balances nicely with the poetic soliloquies that are the lifeblood of this play.
The necessary doubling that goes on also adds to this, particularly with the entrances & exits of figures such as the witches; not only does it add that vital air of mystery, but it also allows for smooth scene transitions and the appearance of further characters. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the Macbeths’ feast (soundtracked by The Prodigy’s Breathe) is similarly well thought out, subtly emerging from behind a mask and then blending back into the crowd when it’s put back on. Abigail Anderson’s direction ensures this stripped back production remains full of purpose and great storytelling.
It also does an excellent job with the Porter scene – part of the play that I’ve not really understood the point of until this year, thanks also to the National Theatre and RSC versions. For the most part, Merely’s production is quite serious & dramatic, so this scene provides a comic break in proceedings, which really plays to the company’s strengths. Andrew Hislop takes on this role with great assertiveness (you try controlling an audience that’s almost entirely made up of teenagers on a school trip!) and is terrific entertainment value.
Leading the cast as Macbeth & Lady Macbeth are Simon Grujich & Emmy Rose. They make a fantastic pairing, and it’s interesting to see how much their personalities diverge as the play goes on; Macbeth starts off reluctant & horrified at Duncan’s murder, whereas Lady Macbeth displays far more control (with a hint of enjoyment) – but by the end she’s overrun by guilt, and he’s slightly more businesslike about the whole affair. Emmy Rose gives Lady Macbeth a devious edge without making her too obviously villainous, making her later scenes more sympathetic. Simon Grujich’s Macbeth definitely comes across as a soldier through and through, as well as expressing his many beautiful speeches in an incredibly eloquent manner.
My verdict? An fast-paced production that doesn’t scrimp on storytelling, and is full of action & poetry – Simon Grujich leads the way as an eloquent Macbeth.
Macbeth ran at Broadway Barking on 20 October 2018. Full details of the tour (and Much Ado About Nothing) can be found on the official website.