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A death that subverts nature

MACBETH. Theatre Babel. Touring until November 26 to Perth, Durham, Poole, Aberystwyth, Bangor. Tour dates on website.

Heather Neill talks to director Graham McLaren about his new touring production of Macbeth

Macbeth's childlessness is, for director Graham McLaren, central to the development of the plot. The play's metaphysical and spiritual nature, and what he is convinced is its Catholic viewpoint, are also crucial.

Both these observations have influenced McLaren's treatment of the Weird Sisters: "The most impressive solution I've seen was in the Kurosawa film Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, where they are replaced with an old man and a spinning wheel. I think they have the function of the prophet in Greek and Roman drama - in fact I believe this play is Shakespeare's homage to Seneca - and appear at just the same points that a prophet would."

But Shakespeare was writing in the reign of James I (and VI of Scotland), who was famously interested in witchcraft - hence the three women. McLaren has replaced them with a child prophet to emphasise the importance to Macbeth of his lack of issue: "Look at the family units - Duncan has sons, Banquo has a son, Macduff has a brood - but Macbeth has 'a barren sceptre'.

Crucially, the point at which he begins to entertain the idea of murder is when Lady Macbeth says, 'I have given suckI'. She is playing her ace."

McLaren nevertheless does not regard Lady Macbeth as manipulative: "She genuinely wants him to be great." In fact, he believes that this is a love story "gone wrong" and, contrary to the usual interpretation, finds a closeness between them even after Duncan's murder, to the extent that Macbeth cradles his wife's body during the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." speech in the last act.

Macbeth, says McLaren, is highly imaginative: "He has the soul of a poet.

He has the imaginative ability to engage in a world he's afraid of, to see daggers and speak to stones." At the end, when he is like a caged animal, but still believes the prophecy that he is safe, "he has to come to terms with the fact that he is not the measure of all things, not at one with the supernatural. For this to be a tragedy we must see him as a great man gone awry rather than an evil one."

Nature is subverted by Macbeth's unnatural act. Banquo has a more pragmatic view of nature and the supernatural, in counterpoint to Macbeth. "It is no accident that Malcolm uses the healthy trees of Birnam Wood - so different from the blasted heath - to restore order."

This production, only 90 minutes long, influenced by classical drama and using an edited text with additions from elsewhere, including Julius Caesar, should come with a health warning for teachers of struggling students. An exploration of the free teaching materials first on the website would be advisable.

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