In the late eighties Richard Demarco helmed Festival productions of Macbeth that took audiences out of the Edinburgh bubble and played to them under the very stars that would have first seen the Thane’s desires. This year he has worked with actors from the University of St Andrews – who recently staged Macbeth in St Andrews Castle – to bring Shakespeare’s play back to the ‘Saint Colme’s Inch’ of which Ross speaks.
Edinburgh melts away as the coach leaves the city and heads towards the banks of the Firth of Forth, where a lone piper waits to welcome us aboard. As the ferry passes under the expanse of the Forth Rail Bridge, our sense of proportion starts to mutate, the world a model town for our entertainment, with tiny toy trains gliding effortlessly overhead and Arthur’s Seat in the far distance looking nothing more than a bump on the landscape.
As the ferry approaches Inchcolm, our perspective on theatre also becomes oddly telescopic. While three maniacal women with scruffy hair, jutting chins and crazed looks prowl the deck, the island’s distant bay springs into life with sword fighting and bannermen, the distance between us and the action intensifying the fleeting sight which is considerably more powerful than any encounter with the cliched hags. From that moment on this is no sightseeing trip: Inchcolm Island is alive, and when the ferry pulls into dock alongside towering crags of rock they are more menacing for being observed through this theatrical frame. With the sound of monks’ songs still playing in our ears, we walk towards the ruined abbey, swathed in grey woollen blankets that shield against the cold and transform a sensibly clad Craghopper clan into something a little more artistically appropriate.
Macbeth and Banquo’s first encounter with the witches is almost completely drowned out by shrieking gulls, who seem hellbent throughout on alerting us to impending doom, even when the urgency of the action suggests otherwise. Only at rare moments does Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie’s direction capitalise on the drama of the darkening sky, yet the witches’ constant lurking presence in the recesses of the abbey’s walls, and the singularly haunting appearance of the torchlit apparition, help bind the action to site.
While the cast cope miraculously with the vocal and physical demands of performing on a windswept Scottish island, and the promenade use of space takes us from sweeping views to cold vaulted halls, the young cast’s performances never feel mature enough to live up to telling such a tale. As Macbeth, Alexander Forsyth casts haunted looks into shadowy corners but displays none of the torment nor ruthlessness which makes the character interesting. While the sexual attraction between husband and wife heats things up, Caroline Ailsa Howitt’s gothic Lady Macbeth likewise could show less madness from the outset to make the character’s manipulations and demise more convincing. Subtler – and therefore stronger – characterisation is evident in the supporting cast, notably Sunny Moodie as a steelily determined Malcolm. Yet the lack of urgency, of intrigue, or of danger ultimately leads to an underwhelming conclusion.
Macbeth on Inchcolm Island is a production in thrall to its surroundings, and if the crumbling stone, bruised sky and lapping waves pull focus then it is to the benefit of the overall experience. Demarco’s intention behind this excursion is profound and the potential of such an atmospheric staging clear to see, but sadly the performances fail to match the beauty, history and magic which surround them.