Macbeth Scottish Opera King’s Theatre

The story is well known – centuries after Shakespeare first wrote Macbeth the play is still studied in schools and performed all over the world on stage and film. One of the Bard’s biggest fans was Giuseppe Verdi and a number of his operas were based on his plays – Falstaff, Otello and Macbeth. Apparently the Italian translations of Shakespeare which Verdi so avidly read were not very good and lost a lot of the spirit and language of the original works. This Scottish Opera production which was first performed in 2005 at Dundee Rep features a new translation of the libretto into English which restores some of Shakespeare’s most famous and fluent lines. Distractingly though, the eye is still drawn to the English surtitles which for the most part are superfluous as the voices are all clear and intelligible.

Director Dominic Hill gives us a pared down version of the opera – a much smaller orchestra than Verdi had envisaged, and only seven singers. The set is also much smaller than usual, not just because the stage of the Kings Theatre is smaller than that of the Festival Theatre, but also the set itself is compact with a lowered ceiling and narrow confining walls. The effect is intimate and claustrophobic with all attention focused centre stage on the events and human drama unfolding.

Although the libretto references Scotland, Cawdor and Birnam, the action could be any warzone, where honour and morality have been brutalised and abandoned by the horrors of war. The set and costumes are dark and foreboding – the blood red of Lady Macbeth’s dress and the actual blood of Duncan being some of the few flashes of colour throughout. With its central story of greed and ambition, deceit and murder, death and madness, this is strong stuff and not for those looking for a night of light entertainment. The only laughs come during the banquet scene before the arrival of Banquo’s ghost where Lady Macbeth gets drunker and drunker as she spills the vodka all over her guests, smokes fags and chews a sausage.

However, none of us have come to Macbeth expecting comedy but what we do expect is good music and singing and, in the main, we get it. David Stephenson as Macbeth was excellent as was Thomas Faulkner as Banquo and Elisabeth Meister as Lady Macbeth also had a fine voice. My only criticism was that sometimes the acting was a bit wooden for such an intimate piece and didn’t always engage the emotions as it should. The exception to that was Anthony Flaum’s Macduff’s lament after the death of his wife and children and his exhortation to the Scots to join with their English allies and rise up against the tyrant Macbeth.

The three punk rocker witches are very different to the usual depiction but no less scary as they hubble and bubble over their cauldron, or jug in this instance. There are no gimmicky special effects other than some dry ice and we have to use our imagination to conjure up the vision of ghosts, demons and future kings and the sight of Birnam wood on the move.

Once again, though, Scottish Opera have brought us something a bit different and it is certainly worth seeing. It is a very short run this time round but it will be touring again later in the year with an even further reduced version.

Irene Brownlee