Part of the ‘Bunker Trilogy’, Jethro Compton’s Macbeth stages Shakespeare’s tragedy in a custom-built World War One bunker in the attics of C Nova. With a cut and reworked script by playwright Jamie Wilkes, this minimalistic version captures most of the full text’s drama with an impressively small cast. It’s far from flawless, or even completely comprehensible, but the team’s combined expertise in crafting intense, compelling drama in intimate spaces makes for a reasonably gripping hour and a quarter.
Unlike Wilkes’ Agamemnon (also written for the Bunker), here the language and geographical references remain intact; we open with Macbeth hailed Thane of Cawdor, and – despite the ostensible setting of a far-flung field in France – Birnam Wood still comes to Dunsinane. This mishmash of time and places is often perplexing; what exactly are we to take as a Thane’s role in frontline military strategy? Between the dagger-seeing and king-killing hasn’t everyone got, you know, a war to fight? And how do you fit a feast in a bunker? This may sound literal-minded, but it’s difficult to see what the setting adds to the play, or how it’s proposed that the two fit together. It’s difficult to overlook the anachronism, and if it’s all intended as a feverish, gas-induced hallucination, it’s definitely not clear.
The cut also requires quite an in-depth familiarity with Shakespeare’s play; as well as fast-forwarding certain sections and magnifying others, Wilkes’ version mystifyingly re-orders events. It’s a bold move, but one that doesn’t pay off – the constant need to work out what’s going on distracts from some fine performances, and occasionally lessens the theatrical tension where it’s intended to enhance it.
The cast is generally very good: Serena Manteghi in particular, who gives a sympathetic portrayal of Clytemnestra in Wilkes’ Agamemnon, saves another female character from being a two-dimensional monster with a tender and even gentle performance of Lady Macbeth. Whilst this makes her bloodthirsty ambitions less believable, the foregrounding of her love for her husband is an interesting angle on the part.
The actors’ occasionally interactions with the audience also give a spark to the staging: when the spectre of Banquo appears before a trembling Macbeth, it’s we who are told to ‘feed, and regard him not’, and as Macbeth speaks of things ‘too terrible for the ear’, he reaches out to tuck a strand of hair behind a rather surprised woman’s ear. These moments, though few and far between, energise the performance and go some way to justifying the space.
The bunker itself is certainly atmospheric, and enhanced by an immersive-feeling cacophony of wartime sound effects and harsh red lighting amidst the darkness. The three witches are asphyxiated men in gas masks, who coupled with the sense of enclosure create a feeling of almost nightmarish claustrophobia and psychological intensity. Ultimately though, it’s difficult to look past the distracting premise and the nagging sense that, even once you’ve worked it all out, it doesn’t really say anything; it’s a tale told by skilful theatre-makers, full of sound and fury signifying nothing particularly enlightening.