Reviews Bristol Published 8 September 2014


Tobacco Factory ⋄ 3rd – 20th September 2014

On Shakespeare and Scottish independence.

Rosemary Waugh

This fortnight’s London Review of Books contains two articles on the theme of Scottish Independence. One is a review of Michael Penman’s new book ‘Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots’, and the other is a collection of ‘Reflections on the Independence Referendum’ by an assortment of writers.

In the latter, T.J. Clark puts forth the argument that “New states are usually the product of catastrophe.  Violence is in the air that they breathe.”  He goes on to contrast Scotland’s potentially democratic transferal to sovereignty with current events in the Middle East and the birth of the Islamic State.  And whilst one would not wish for violence and should celebrate peaceful democracy, T.J. Clark does have a point. Placed alongside the bloody history of England and Scotland fighting one another, the quietude of the matter is almost curious.  Katie Stevenson, in the review of Penman’s book, proposes that more than one person have suggested that ‘Alex Salmon wants to be Robert the Bruce’. Yet where is Salmon riding forth on his horse to Westminster and slashing David Cameron’s throat upon Westminster Abbey’s high altar?  Alternatively, he could perform some other old-fashioned war games tactic, like kidnapping Boris Johnson and keeping him locked in a small wooden box in a castle somewhere?

Unless I am wrong, and violent mayhem is just around the corner, I do not see a spate of Englishmen being drowned in North Sea Oil anytime soon.  Scottish Sovereignty will be recorded in the history books as an act of papers signed, ballots posted and votes counted.  Beautifully boring democracy in action, more lovely than the taste of shortbread.

And so to Filter’s Macbeth, the play to remind us of the bloody past.  Of times when the transferral of powers from one ruler to another might well be brokered with the sword and not the pen, and Shakespeare thought it wise to remind people not to go slitting King James I’s throat.

Similarly to Scottish Independence and the plan for what occurs when/if they vote ‘Yes’, Filter’s production of Macbeth is not quite finalised.  As we were warned before going into the theatre, this is a production that is still in evolving and will potentially be subject to quite a bit of change between now and when it is touring in the coming months.

I should start by saying that there were a lot of good things about this production.  Firstly, it was a production of Macbeth and, quite frankly, a company would have to go a long, long way to truly spoil a text that has a similar lyricism to the King James Bible.  Secondly, the casting was excellent.  In particular, Lady Macbeth played by Poppy Miller; Macbeth played by Oliver Dimsdale and King Duncan played by Paul Woodson were all very well chosen.  And of these three, Poppy Miller was uniquely and suitably uptight, controlling and driven: a perfect Lady Macbeth.  It was easy to believe that it was she who manipulated her husband.  Oliver Dimsdale worked well as her opposite, playing a neither-here-nor-there Everyman character, the guy who would be almost depressingly easy to convince that he deserved the promotion and should destroy his colleague to get it.

However, the main problem with Filter’ production was speed.  The cast steamed their way through the opening moments of the play, creating the impression that the narrative goes from Scene 1: Three witches (acted by four people on stage) tell a man a prophesy to Scene 2: King Duncan is dead.  The reason this autobahn-speed version didn’t work was that it cut all of the crucial dithering of Macbeth (and therefore the inherent suspense as to whether he would go through with it) and the excellent conniving of Lady Macbeth to get him to carry out the murder.  Put simply, it cut to the chase too quickly, Macbeth’s harmatia-moment was rendered less dramatic for want of suspense before hand.  This was a particular shame, given how well cast Lady Macbeth and her husband were; it would have been a pleasure to see more of their characters on show.

To return to T.J. Clark, one reason to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum is to stop the “Eton-City-News International ‘nation’ [calling] the shots.”  And this might be a good reason, because it is not just Scottish people who perceive and hate the continued bias towards all things London, but also people in Wales; people in the North of England; people in the South West of England and people in the Midlands.  And quite likely many more.  One of the ways in which this hatred is often expressed is in anger towards the dominance of RP or estuary English.  So why not seize the opportunity, especially when performing a play that is not even based in Southern England, to use other regional accents?  As it happened, several of Shakespeare’s lines that were particularly full of apostrophes sounded more natural when a Northern quality appeared in the actors’ voices.  It is within little acts like not bothering to adopt the Queen’s English when performing Shakespeare that subtly undermine T.J. Clark’s E-C-NI conglomerate.  This performance was radical in so many ways, that it would seem almost natural to drop this convention as well.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this production was in many ways very enjoyable.  The prominence of Moog-y music and the bizarre surrealism of the props – cheesy Wotsits and a hangover-cure crow – made this an amusing and entertaining re-imagining of an old classic.  In fact, it was because of its good qualities and cast that I wanted it to slow down. It’s often said that thanks to iPhones etc we all have the attention span of a Jack Russell puppy, but I think that if someone chooses to buy tickets to see Shakespeare then they are perfectly prepared to stay sitting in their seats for a pretty decent amount of time.  Filter should exploit this and not feel the need to hurtle through space and time.  As Jack White once said ‘Let’s have a ball and a biscuit Sugar/ And take our sweet little time about it.’


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Macbeth Show Info

Produced by Filter and Tobacco Factory Theatres

Cast includes Oliver Dimsdale, Geoffrey Lumb, Poppy Miller, Victoria Moseley, Alison Reid and Paul Woodson




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