Lady Bracknell held that a husband-to-be should either know everything or nothing, and I believe the same is true of audiences for Macbeth. Either we need to be shown everything, in a way that in the theatre I have only seen achieved once, and then by a Japanese company, or treat it like a dramatic poem and show as little as is necessary. The play works marvellously in the latter way, as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Citizens, among others, have shown.
The interest of the Theatre Babel production, which began its three-month tour at the Tron in Glasgow, is that it tries to combine the "nothing" style with a deliberate nudging towards a contemporary setting. So we get the bare stage, the waiting actors sitting off-stage, and non-defining costume - all traditional marks of the "show 'em nothing" style, but with, added on, the guns and drugs of modern gangland.
This is very much Theatre Babel's declared style, grafting the classics on to popular culture, though it does rather beg the question of whether theatre-goers are incapable of making their own connections. Especially as the Theatre Babel programme notes helpfully point out striking contemporary (Serbian) parallels with Macbeth's career.
Nevertheless, the company views the play as a "super-crime" drama, plays up the violence for all it's worth, and plays down everything else. Macbeth's very belligerent opening line about it being a happy day but awful weather sets the tone, and thereafter director Peter McAllister has excised the characters and episodes that mitigate the horror. The Porter's ribald comedy has gone, naturally enough, but so too have Lady Macbeth's inebriated puns, and Macbeth's black humour.
This is Macbeth as "theatre of cruelty", two hours (without an interval) of unremitting tension and conflict, at the centre of which is John Kazek's powerful rendition of "the butcher of Inverness".
He gives a highly-wrought and committed performance, particularly impressive in the way he reveals the disintegration of personality in the final throes of failure. At the end, he has to cap an arduous performance with a sustained and punishing fight with Macduff, using knives, fists and boots, ended only by Macduff seizing a gun.
It is a remarkable stage fight, but in its way it points to the sacrifices the production makes for this devotion to violence, because at this point the plot demands that Macbeth should be "cowed", that he should fight, but hopelessly. Throughout, the insistence on violence irons out the subtlety, and the psychological precision of the play. Nuance and irony get short shrift.
So, in its way, does the text. There is a tendency to speak the verse tersely, in staccato phrases, studded with silences. For the sake of this relentless "toughness", the text becomes one-paced, and loses the pulse of the line and the paragraph, where meanings weigh with the rhythm and balance.
It is no accident that Duncan and Malcolm, the more peaceable characters, are the two that speak the verse with the kind of understanding that allows it to work.
Theatre Babel offers school workshops, tel: 0141 226 8806