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Macbeth on the Estate

Dateline: 14th April, 1997

Did you see BBC2's Macbeth on the Estate a week gone Saturday (5th April) on BBC2? It was part of the Performance series which showcases new drama.

Eh? Showcases new drama? Shakespeare?

That may sound like a contradiction, but it is true - and appropriately named. So what was different about it?

  • It was set, not in Scotland, but on Birmingham's Ladywood estate;
  • The characters were all members of street gangs, drug dealers and criminals, not Scottish nobility;
  • The weird sisters became weird children;
  • Although most of the principal characters were played by professional actors, over a hundred local people from the estate took part, some in speaking roles;
  • The director was a documentary film-maker, not a theatre or even a TV drama director;
  • The play was cut to an hour and twenty minutes in length.

According to the Radio Times, the director, Penny Woolcock, said that she had very little interest in Shakespeare.

I hate the theatre. Most of it is completely irrelevant. But in "Shakespeare on the Estate" people got very excited, and suddenly you heard his words coming alive. Those speeches are wonderful and they mean something. So it wasn't just the people of Ladywood who became interested in Shakespeare, it was me as well.
Poor lady! She's suddenly realised what she has been missing!

But is this conversion to Shakespeare (both Woolcock's and the people of Ladywood's) really any justification for the radical - almost root and branch - chopping up of one of the major tragedies of world theatre?

Richard Stayton, in an acerbic and polemical article entitled Whose Shakespeare?, has this to say about this kind of approach:

The hip, with it, chic, cool thing to do with Shakespeare is to make his work ACCESSIBLE... not by speaking the lines clearly, or elucidating a plot simply, or addressing profound philosophical discourse in a conversational style. We make Shakespeare accessible by costuming him in today's fashions, or making him a screenwriter obedient to a director's fantasies.

Evidently the fear among us is that Shakespeare may not be relevant. So theaters feel compelled to make his work relevant. There is in today's theater world what I call THE SHAKESPEARE INDUSTRY. It has sprung from academia, where cultural historians, English professors and inexperienced theorists conspire to write original theses exhuming the true meaning behind the writings of the man from Stratford. Papers roll. Documents flow. Conferences are held. Opinions are spoken. There is Hamlet's Oedipus Complex and Cleopatra's Edifice Envy. There is post-modernism, pre-structuralism, multiculturalism and deconstructivism. There is the politically correct and there is the politically incorrect and there is the politically indifferent.

Where, oh where, in all this contorted analysis, is the Shakespeare who first touched our hearts and minds?
Where indeed?

As always, the truth, I think, is somewhere in between. We can justify a "different" or "radical" approach if it illuminates or throws fresh light upon the play, or if it provides a powerful theatrical experience. I remember vividly my first ever experience of Shakespeare in modern dress. It was a National Youth Theatre production of Julius Caesar, back in the late sixties, and it portrayed Caesar's "party" as being totalitarian - in fact, Nazi - and Brutus, Cassius and co. as being the democrats. It made a great impression on me, and I still feel that there was justification for this approach, although now I can see that even this, the simplest of Shakespeare's plays, is not susceptible of such simplistic interpretation.

So, was Macbeth on the Estate justified? In terms of it providing a powerful theatrical experience, I must say no. Unfortunately I don't think James Frain had the depth to carry off the part of Macbeth. He is, quite clearly, a very competent actor, but his understated performance failed to bring the language alive and the heroic dimension was totally lacking. The great speeches were so underplayed that the powerful emotional drive was lost completely. I did, however, find that David Harewood's West Indian Macduff (something which I must confess I initially saw as a multicultural sop!) really got to me. Once the unexpectedness of the accent wore off (as it did very quickly), I found it added a new dimension to familiar words and he brought Macduff's excruciating distress at hearing of the death of his wife and children into painful life in a way which very few other performances have for me. Too often the repetition of "all my little ones?" becomes bathetic rather than moving. Not here. Here there was a depth of feeling, created to a considerable extent by the accent, which went straight to the heart.

At first I thought I was going to love Susan Vidler's Lady Macbeth: her strength and raw sexual power, following so closely on the "unsex me here" speech, made her appalling cruelty very credible, but she was let down badly by unsympathetic cutting of the text, which left her descent into the depths of remorse unconvincing and unsatisfying.

My pleasure in Andrew Tiernan's Banquo, however, was unalloyed. I have seen him many times playing petty criminals and various other totally unsympathetic characters and I was worried that his Banquo might be equally one-dimensional. I needn't have worried though: I responded to him with just the right mixture of distaste and sympathy.

But it was in the area of fresh light where, I'm afraid, the production failed miserably. Let me quote Woolcock again:

I can't imagine "Macbeth" being set anywhere else now. The idea of it having cloaks and beards and people wandering around medieval castles seems incredibly odd. This just seems to work so well.
In order to make the play work, we had to be convinced that these were drug dealers, violent criminals, and so on, and that Duncan was the local king of crime. Now Ray Winstone as Duncan was totally believable, a really revolting, minor wannabe Godfather figure, but, to achieve that, Woolcock had to turn the character inside out, which she did by hacking the text to ribbons. Shakespeare's Duncan vanished and, in his place, we had someone who would not be out of place in Prime Suspect or even a Martin Scorsese movie!

Text-cutting (a perfectly respectable pursuit, given the uncut length of Shakespeare's plays) became text-slashing, and what we were left with was melodrama rather than tragedy. By losing the depth of the original, Woolcock substituted a superficial universality, based upon the fact that there are some pretty revolting crimals everywhere, for the real universality of the flawed hero of Shakespeare's play and the evil which he deliberately releases into the world.

I have to say that I disagree with Richard Stayton: modern interpretations (re-interpretations?) of Shakespeare's plays can work. But not this one.

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©Peter Lathan 2001