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Set Books on Stage

Here's an honest, doublet-and-hose Macbeth, (English Touring Theatre) compromised only by a hectically played opening that lands us at Lady Macbeth's letter before we're settled in our seats. The supernatural fares badly, Weird Sisters becoming the three voiceovers and Banquo's Ghost badly botched more walking wounded than revenant. And the playing in lesser roles is, well, lesser.

The good news? Design ideas include a series of projected skyscapes, from slate-grey clouds to sunbursts and blue skies, atmospheric in two senses. And the Macbeths' (Paul Higgins and Hilary Lyon) progress is thoughtfully charted. Here is a thane who talks calmly of murder he's a soldier and not afeard but is thrown by the challenge of moral choice. Early on, he tries to shrug it off, but like a debt it won't go away and in the "Tomorrows" speech his restless unease ends in giving up on the action to address us directly about life as a poor player.

Lady Macbeth is a disturbed somnambulist in waiting from the start. Nauseous at holding the daggers, she tries to convince herself, not too well, that water clears the deed and is evidently at cross-purposes over Banquo's non eterne posterity; nor does she trust to chance when her husband thinks of murder. And for once Macduff junior is no precocious smartypants, he actually thinks out his wise sayings.

Accompanying the production is an extensive education programme, including teachers' days and pre-matinee theatre workshops. The company's education officer, Fiona Leslie, has devised in-schoolcollege programmes for groups, either before or after seeing the show. Workshops are led by the well-contrasted and sympathetic team of Julie Batty and Timothy Bennett.

Pre-viewing sessions flip quickly through the story, let students (mainly GCSE but some A-level and BTEC) physicalise ambition running and striking "success" poses then go through a night chez Macbeth. This starts with the importance of a royal visit and moves to the chill atmosphere after the murder. The session ends with a detailed look at a brief passage, exploring verbal rhythms and their relation to physical action. Two-hour sessions for those knowing the production offer a chance to criticise but mainly build to examine the sequence: desire-choice-deed-consequence. Focus is on rhythm, voice, physicality and imagination. Key words are accompanied by actions, then repeated by the whole group group sensitivity is emphasised throughout. And when two clusters of six people wander around, each chorally intoning one of several key words, intriguing combinations occur: one moment we hear "mad horror", the next "wicked desire". It makes you think.

Macbeth plays at the Winchester Theatre Royal, November 20-25; Worthing Connaught November 28 December 2; Hammersmith Lyric Theatre January 11 February 18. Details of education work are available from Fiona Lesley, tel: 01270 501800

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