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Financial Times, 21st April 1992

The RSC and RNT are not alone, however, in producing stunning versions of the classics, the English Shakespeare Company has been chosen to open the International Theatre Festival in Chicago next month and last week showed its new ‘Macbeth’ to the national press at the New Theatre, Cardiff. The production is directed by Michael Bogdanov and Macbeth is played by Michael Pennington, the ESC’s other co-founder.

I was reminded how accurate Shakespeare’s titles are. Just as the two parts of ‘King Henry IV’ are ultimately a play about Henry IV and not the surrounding characters, so this production is about Macbeth and not his wife. Pennington dominates throughout; there is never much suggestion of his being “too full of the milk of human kindness”. Occasionally he flinches and Lady Macbeth (Jenny Quayle) urges him on, but from the start this is a man who knows what he is doing. At the end he wants to die. It means the diminishing of Lady Macbeth’s role in the play, but as an interpretation one can hardly quarrel with it.

The ESC has a habit of picking up contemporary events to make its productions seem more lively. This time it is the Gulf War. What looks like a huge rocket launcher commands the stage at the beginning, and the battle with which the play opens has a touch of modern desert war about it. Later there is the sound of Malcolm arriving for the final push in a helicopter.

Yet the rocket launcher is variously used. At times it is the steps that ascend to the throne. Memorably Banquo appears at the very top of it in the banquet scene. If you think that the ESC takes liberties in these matters, you have not seen what the Schiller Theatre in Berlin does with the same play. By contrast, Bogdanov and Pennington are quite conventional. Derek Smith’s Duncan, for instance, is simply an ageing king, who would not think of commanding Lady Macbeth to his bed as happens in the Schiller version.

The witches are not all that way-out either, though their cauldron is a huge vessel associated with waste disposal and into which they descend. No great point is made, but nothing distracts from Pennington’s overwhelming Macbeth.

The Guardian, 15th July 1992

“Where can my son see some traditional Shakespeare?” a colleague asked over lunch. Well not at Richmond Theatre, where Michael Bogdanov’s English Shakespeare company ‘Macbeth’ offers us guns, rifles, a Porter whose initial line is “F… off” and a sporty, tweed-jacketed Duncan intriguingly suggesting that George V was bumped off in the course of a Scottish shooting party.

Updating is neither inherently good nor bad: everything depends on the use to which it is put. The problem here is the visual fussiness. The best Macbeths of recent years (Trevor Nunn’s RSC chamber version, Katherina Thalbach’s gallows-humour Schiller Theatre production) have gone for a single all-embracing metaphor. But Clare Lyth’s design is dominated by a travelling crane, castle tower and even platform for Banquo’s Ghost. Sometime it’s swathed in curtains: sometimes not. What it means is that each scene, as in Victorian theatre, makes a separate visual statement thereby squandering the advantage gained by doing the play without interval.

The production is a choppy, fragmented affair dominated by a superb Macbeth from Michael Pennington: a magnificent classical actor now in his prime. Using a light Scottish accent Pennington captures brilliantly the hero’s swift declension from nervously ambitious thane to wild-eyed madman living in a world of fantasy. He has such command of the verse that he can isolate a single phrase, such as “vaulting ambition”, while preserving the propulsive rhythm of a speech. And psychologically, he implies that Macbeth is haunted by his childlessness: the idea of the crown being wrenched by an “unlineal hand” sends him into a frenzy and he even claws his wife’s belly in desperation.

He is partnered by a strong Lady Macbeth in Jenny Quayle who, right from her open-mouthed horror at the killing of the grooms, makes it clear she has lost control of her wayward thane. Ms Quayle leaves us with the image of a powerful woman sidelined into helplessness: the ultimate insult comes when her husband patronises her as “dearest chuck”. Alan Cody’s revolted Macduff and Derek Smith’s Duncan lend strong support. But I shall remember this production not for Mr Bogdanov’s militaristic sound and fury, nor for Ms Lyth’s silly Macbethascope, but for a Pennington Macbeth that ranks with the finest.

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