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Mayhem, madness and bloody murder

A modern gangster setting underlines the dark power struggle in Macbeth.

Aleks Sierz takes a look

Macbeth By William Shakespeare

Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch until April 8

Tel: box office, 01708 443333

Tel: education, 01708 462373


One of Shakespeare's most exciting plays, Macbeth, is a tale of ambition, revenge and the power of a persuasive wife over an uncertain husband. Following a prophecy by three witches, the Scottish warlord Macbeth - egged on by Lady Macbeth - murders King Duncan, his guest, and then tries to eliminate all rivals to the crown. Finally, he is killed by Macduff, whose wife and children he has slaughtered.

Bob Carlton directs a modern-dress production set in a gangster milieu. "We have nine actors who mostly wear black suits, white shirts and black ties," he says. "The gangster idea is both an interesting concept in itself and it's cheaper - we couldn't afford to do the play in doublet and hose. We have limited resources." The nine cast members play all the parts and - being musicians as well as actors - they also perform the score, composed by Carol Sloman. "It is inspired by the Velvet Underground, so it has that pagan, spare feel."

Macbeth, says Carlton, is about "power struggle, revenge, and the question of the relationship between fate and free will. We use the quote 'blood will have blood' almost as a mantra." The play's continuing relevance is emphasised "if you think of all the street gangs, especially in LA, which this country always mirrors. And if you look at world politics, it's all about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And how many people use mayhem in order to get power for themselves."

For Carlton, Macbeth is "is a man of great imagination who can see the consequences of what he does. Lady Macbeth is an ambitious woman, but she doesn't have that kind of imagination: all she can see is the death of Duncan and Macbeth taking over. So when that happens, and Macbeth does the deed, he just has to carry on and he fights to the last. Lady Macbeth, by contrast, goes mad."

Carlton still remembers one of his teachers, Tony Burrows, who set him on his chosen career. "He was an amateur director, and when he taught Shakespeare he talked about it in a very visual way, so you understood it as a play and not just as literature. I hope that young people will see Macbeth as exciting, sexy and fascinating, and not just about a guy that speaks in a difficult language they couldn't give a toss about."

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