The staging of any Shakespeare presents a dilemma to even the most talented of directors: to stay with tradition, or to innovate. In this production, which was most enjoyable, a decision was made to compromise. A traditional core of the good old-fashioned tragedy was dressed in the modern garb of cinema and visual effects device.
I was impressed with Abingdon Drama Club, and with the ambition of the production, from the thrust stage, king-making upper window, model castle and figurines on the battlefield, to the colour-coded cloaks, headbands and symbols of the cast, the featureless masks of supporting players, and the thematic use of imagery.
For the most part, these devices served the drama excellently, in particular the intimacy of the stage, the colour-coding, and the imagery of the east, which ranged from the headbands to tea trays and futons. The use of sound, from the eerie to the ecclesiastical, was also sensibly restrained and thus impactful.
In the larger battle scenes, the use of models was less effective, and appeared to be delaying the dialogue, although this became smoother as the play progressed. The featureless masks also jarred a little with the more subtle elements, although they worked well for the nameless murderers as they committed their foul deeds.
The director, Michael Ward, appears to have drawn not only on Kurosawa's Kumonosu-ju, but on other themes prevalent in modern productions of the play. The first of these is the emphasis on the death of Lady Macbeth's child, restricted to the paragraph 'I have given suck' in the text, as the root of a maniacal thrust for power.
Additional scenes, showing the departure of Macbeth for battle when his babe is alive, the funeral of the child, and his receiving of the news in a letter before he first meets the witches, must necessarily be conducted without dialogue. They are nonetheless effective in tapping universal empathy for a timeless personal tragedy.
The other modern theme is the additional emphasis on Fleance as future king. He is brought to the fore in the company of Lady Macbeth, even cradling the body of her babe at the funeral, and throughout in moving the figurines in the castle. It is he who appears to be manipulating the unfolding events, rather than the witches.
In 1948, Orson Welles featured Fleance at the end, seizing the fallen crown from Macbeth, and here Ward continues that tradition. His Fleance, using the figurines, first crowns Malcolm, and then takes the crown for his own, having heard the wail of the witches. It is perhaps the dark twist we modern audiences demand.
Other scenes have been cut, enabling the play to be delivered in under two hours, including those believed to feature in the text as 'padding', to enable costume changes and such. More significantly, the end has been altered, with the removal of a fight scene involving a victorious Macbeth, and of Malcolm's entrance as king.
Whereas the emphasis on Macbeth's babe and Fleance is highly effective and makes dramatic sense, the shortening of the end is a little abrupt. It may have been wiser to retain the triumph of Malcolm, before depicting his demise, since several members of the audience were left a little bemused by this particular use of figurines.
The acting was solid throughout, as would be expected of Abingdon Drama Club, including both the emotional interplay and the command of the dialogue. The chemistry of the Macbeths, John Hawkins and Lynne Smith, should be applauded on an emotional level (although perhaps less convincing on a sexual one).
The highlights of this performance utilised the thrust stage to full effect, including the scene where Macbeth has his doubts about murdering Duncan, and the appearance of Banquo's ghost. It is worth considering that in the intimacy of the space, there is little room for error, and the Macbeths justify their director's faith.
Other notable performances came from Harry McCarthy as a detached, sinister Fleance, Christopher Kendrick as a noble Macduff, and Tristan Kear, whose acting in multiple support roles suggested a capacity for the mastery of more substantial parts in future. It would be fair to say that not one of the cast weakened this performance.
On the whole, the clear directorial ambition in combining modern trends in staging with eastern imagery, the professionalism of the cast, and the largely unbroken attention of a class from a local school, suggested that it is this kind of production that, alongside the original text, will continue the legacy of Shakespeare.