Mac the knife

31st January 1997 at 00:00
With a company of seven actors - for a schools' tour of Macbeth - and bearing in mind the requirement that performances be no longer than one and a half hours to fit into school timetables, director Graham Watts decided to take a radical look at the play.

"I wanted students to be challenged to think about the play," he says, "to be surprised out of their expectations so that they would want to argue and discuss what they've seen."

The witches have gone, and evil, instead of being a supernatural force outside ourselves, is shown to be very much a product of the human world.

The play takes place within a concentration camp. Neil Irish's set has a high, wire-mesh fence which towers above the small cell, with its three, rough, wooden bunk-beds, where the prisoners live and where they present the play - all dressed in the black and grey striped prison uniform.

But "present" is too self-conscious a word, rather they drift into it, after one member of the group quietly intones: "Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more." Watts says, "The inmates are telling their own story, and what they present is a nihilistic world based on their own experience. "

Teachers may worry about the re-arrangement and omission of some of the text, but this is less disorientating than might be supposed. The main body of the play is given a well-spoken and robust performance by the young graduates of Birmingham Theatre School, while the grey background, with actors off-stage peering through the wire at events which mirror the nadir of human civilisation, create powerful, 20th-century images to set against such lines as: "O nation miserableWith an untitled, tyrant bloody-sceptredWhen shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?" Watts says, "This is a deeply torn, disturbed world. It opens with a rebellion against King Duncan and ends with a degree of uncertainty about Malcolm, whose ambiguous, 'It won't be long before I'll be even with you yet', leaves a number of questions in the air."

The production closes in this ambivalent mood, as the witches' initial prophesies are half-spoken, half-whispered by the characters who remain alive, while Malcolm already seems haunted by the prophesy to Banquo that, "Thou shalt get Kings, though thou be none."

Five years with the RSC and two years with the ESC - his "heroes" are Michael Bogdanov, Trevor Nunn and Mark Rylance - Watts says: "There isn't one correct way of performing a Shakespeare play." He seems to have proved his point with this bold, challenging, yet ultimately truthful production, which should send students scurrying to their texts to work out and discuss the effects achieved.

Macbeth tour runs until April 30. Requests for bookings now or for a summer tour: Shakespeare in Education 0121 440 8772

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