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Macbeth review at Rose Theatre, York – ‘Shakespeare-by-numbers’

Leandra Ashton and Richard Standing in Macbeth at Rose Theatre, York. Photo: Charlotte Graham

In this country, too often there’s a crude, limiting idea of what Shakespeare on stage looks like. Audiences expect opaque verse, loud declaiming and a worthy sense of self-improvement. Sadly, Damian Cruden’s production of Macbeth – one of four shows in a new temporary Shakespearean theatre in York – ticks all those boxes.

Trading on a strange mix of history and novelty, the Rose claims to be Europe’s first pop-up Elizabethan theatre. The structure itself is half industrial scaffolding, half 16th-century playhouse. Similarly, this take on Macbeth is not quite one thing nor the other, combining an often museum-like approach to the text with occasional modern flourishes.

The main intervention is the decision to cast the witches not as supernatural forces but as resentful underlings who plot to fool Macbeth. It’s an intriguing choice, potentially shifting the entire meaning of the play. But the implications of this change – not to mention the motivations of these ‘witches’ – are never fully explored.

What the show fatally lacks, meanwhile, is any sense of clarity in the verse speaking. Most of the actors deliver their lines on one of two levels, neutral or overwrought, with no indication of the texture or nuance of meaning. As a result, the text washes over the stage like a wave, its subtleties indistinguishable.

As Macbeth, Richard Standing conflates guilt, paranoia and murderous ambition into an oddly one-note performance of angst, while Leandra Ashton’s Lady Macbeth is a disappointingly two-dimensional villain.

Most frustrating is the feeling of missed opportunity. The buzz surrounding this venue could have been a chance to engage and enthuse new audiences. Instead, this laboured production will only confirm suspicions that Shakespeare’s plays are hard work.

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Verdict
Frustrating Shakespeare-by-numbers at York’s new pop-up Elizabethan theatre
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