A few years ago I saw a Polish opera based on Macbeth. It was performed by fire-eaters on motorbikes. What with it being in Polish – and on bikes – it was hard to follow what was going on, but it’s amazing to think that this 400-year-old regicide tragedy is so adaptable that even after thousands upon thousands of versions have been done, it can still be presented in a new light. And on bikes.
Macbeth is one of the most regularly performed Shakespeare plays. It’s a set text in schools, and in recent years there have been high-profile adaptations with star performers like Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy. And now, two versions of Macbeth are being staged within weeks of one another in North East theatres: one by Tara Arts at Queen’s Hall in Hexham, and one by Filter, at Newcastle’s Northern Stage.
So, quick recap: Macbeth is about a man who is told he is destined to be a king by three witches and goes on to kill the current king and anyone else who stands in his way, goaded by his formidable wife. However, the witches’ further prophecies haunt him and he finds he cannot escape fate. It’s a timeless tale of destiny, ambition and ultimately, justice (spoiler: Macbeth dies).
Before discussing the play with the people behind the two productions – Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts, and Ferdy Roberts, Co-Artistic Director and actor at Filter – I have to remember to mind my language. Many actors are superstitious about using the play’s name in a theatre and will only call it the Scottish Play. Are they superstitious? ‘No, no, no, I’m calling it Macbeth,’ Jatinder chuckles. ‘I’ve been told off quite a few times,’ says Ferdy, mischievously. ‘I just finished a job in the West End and quite a few, shall we say, older members of the profession got quite angry with me whenever I mentioned the name.’
Some theatre companies take the old-fashioned approach to Shakespeare, but Tara Arts and Filter both have a track record of producing more innovative theatre. Tara Arts was founded in 1977 by Jatinder, who arrived in England from Kenya in 1968. They aim to make connections across cultures and support ethnic minority talent.
Filter are a gang of theatre-makers who met at college, and put together their shows in two weeks. ‘Basically we’re just a bunch of mates,’ says Ferdy. They set up the company in 2003 as an alternative to the theatre they were seeing in London at the time, which they found patronising and dull. ‘I grew up just outside Bradford and a lot of my mates were not theatre-goers. I wanted to make work that my mates would go see.’
Tara Arts’ Macbeth is about a powerful Punjabi British-Asian family, and puts the play in a domestic context, seeing it as a story about families rather than politics. ‘When I look at families they have the same ambitions, anxieties and rivalries as the corridors of power,’ Jatinder explains. The witches are portrayed as members of India’s transgender community, the hijras.
‘They are a 1,000-year-old community in India,’ says Jatinder. ‘Everyone accepts that there are these kinds of people around, but everyone is also extremely wary of them; they are provocative, they prophesise. It seems to me their traits fitted the witches. Modern hijras are also fantastically raucous and colourful, they sing and they dance. There’s a wonderful YouTube video about street hijras who are being used by the Mumbai council to teach people road safety! It’s fabulous. The drivers don’t know where to look.’
In Filter’s version, the three witches operate strange electronic apparatus, which they invite Macbeth to play. Filter are known for their groundbreaking use of sound, and bespoke electronic equipment has been made especially for this show. ‘A lot of people write that we’re “anarchic” and “irreverent.” It’s not true – we’re hugely respectful of the play,’ says Ferdy, adding that Filter’s devised, collaborative approach is actually perfectly appropriate for plays of Shakespeare’s era. ‘When Shakespeare rehearsed his plays there wasn’t a director in the room. Actors were collaborating with the writer. I would say our Macbeth is weirdly traditional.’
Tara Arts are aiming for a spectacle with Macbeth. Colourful curtains and Indian fabrics invade the traditional stage, and the hijras sport colourful saris. ‘When Macbeth gets his prophesy what comes into his mind is, “My god, I’m going to become a Mughal emperor,”’ says Jatinder. ‘So when he comes from his coronation he is dressed to the nines.’ Filter’s design, meanwhile, is more stripped back. ‘We don’t have a costume designer, we are wearing what we wear. There’s no set. There are two tables with loads of equipment on it, and that’s it.’ What they lack in props they more than make up for in energy. ‘We like to think we have a freedom and an anarchy in the rehearsal room that comes out in performance. It’s more like going to see a band.’
Macbeth is an extremely violent play, but the two versions also differ in their approach to the blood and guts. Filter are downplaying that aspect. ‘It’s a psychological play,’ says Ferdy. ‘Macbeth is constantly referring to his thoughts, Lady Macbeth is constantly telling him to remove himself from his thoughts else he’ll turn mad. That’s been our approach – less of the bloodthirsty tyrant returning from the battlefield.’ Jatinder has other ideas. ‘I’m not shying away from the blood! But what I am exploring with our fight director is that I don’t want to see too much weaponry. Some forms of martial arts are extremely deadly. I feel that Macbeth needs to get to that kind of level. Where he can tear open a neck!’
Looking beyond the blood and witches and electronic soundscapes, however, I wonder why the play still matters to people. Surely there aren’t many of us who could relate to a warrior who kills a king, so I’m interested to know how these theatre-makers can connect with this character. ‘When you’re a migrant in theatre you have this constant ambitious drive, “What do I do next, what do I reach next?”’ says Jatinder. ‘Macbeth has that drive. He knows it’s wrong but there’s a logic about it that he can’t escape.’
Ferdy is actually playing Macbeth in Filter’s version. Does he see himself in Macbeth? ‘Well, I’ve never unseamed anyone from the knave to the chaps,’ he laughs. ‘But Macbeth says towards the end of the play that he’s lived too long, that he was a man of hope who took the wrong turn and couldn’t get back. I think we all have that in our psyches.’
Tara Arts will begin their tour in Hexham. Filter’s Newcastle performance will be at the end of their tour. ‘We’re really looking forward to Newcastle,’ says Ferdy. ‘I think Northern Stage audiences will enjoy it but also challenge it. I don’t really want an audience to say, “Ooh that was a nice bit of theatre, shall we go and have a cup of tea?” It’s much more interesting if people can debate it. The Newcastle audiences will go for that, I think.’
Shakespeare may have had his 450th birthday last year, but the Bard shows no signs of going out of fashion. ‘The stories he tells are ones which are perpetually human stories,’ says Jatinder. ‘Ambition, jealousy, murder – those are just human norms. It’s also the compressed way in which he articulates the human condition. It’s like with the best poetry; you think you know the meaning of it and then it slips away and a couple of years later you find another meaning.’
‘Shakespeare speaks very cleanly and openly to people today,’ Ferdy adds. ‘He was able to understand human frailty. There’s also a lot of humour in there. And his plays are not just for the educated few who read English at university. They’re really, beautifully simple. You’re sitting there thinking, “Is he talking about me? He’s talking about my life, isn’t he? How did he do that, from 400 years ago?’”
Tara Arts’ Macbeth is at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, 25th–27th February with a post-show Q&A on Thursday 26th www.queenshall.co.uk
Filter’s Macbeth is at Northern Stage, Newcastle, 10th–14th March www.northernstage.co.uk
Macbeth: The Digested Read
Two generals of King Duncan of Scotland, Macbeth and Banquo, meet three witches who tell them a prophecy. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, then he will become king. Banquo will not be king, but will be father to a line of kings. Shortly afterwards, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. Uh-oh.
Macbeth invites Duncan and his men to stay at his castle in Inverness. Duncan names his son Malcolm as his heir. Lady Macbeth ‘gently’ suggests that Macbeth should kill Duncan to fulfil the prophecy. They get Duncan’s servants drunk and commit the deed.
Two mates of the king (one of them, confusingly, called Macduff) turn up. Macbeth has killed the servants now, because murder is clearly habit-forming. Malcolm flees for England and Macbeth becomes king.
Macbeth then hires assassins to see to Banquo and his son Fleance. Banquo is killed but Fleance escapes. Macbeth sits down to a banquet with his lords, but suddenly believes he can see Banquo’s ghost. He goes berserk and Lady Macbeth has to call everyone a taxi (not literally).
Macbeth revisits the witches. They tell him that he’s basically fine because no man born of woman can kill him, and that he will be safe until ‘Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.’ Elsewhere, Lady Macbeth goes off her rocker.
Macbeth has annoyed enough people by now that they all join forces to march on the castle. On their way to Dunsinane Hill they cut down some trees at Birnham Wood to wear as a fetching foliage-based camouflage. Macduff arrives and Macbeth tells him he fears no man born of woman.
It turns out Macduff was born by caesarean section. A pedantic quibble, but a fatal one. Macduff beheads him.