REVIEW: Living With Macbeth at Unity Theatre, 08/09/2012

STORM Theatre’s ‘Living with Macbeth’ played at the Unity Theatre in anticipation of the 2012 Shakespeare Festival this month. The play is written and performed by Paul Braithwaite and Kevin Brannagan and features original music from local acoustic act Kaya. “Honest trifles” or “a tale told by an idiot”? Luke Moore catches the closing night…

“Sometimes you just know after rehearsing a play that all it needs is an audience to come together”, I’m told by Chris Carney, the production’s Assistant Director, as we’re sat in the Unity Theatre bar ahead of the performance. He’s right, of course, and knowing that the production’s life had started originally as a two man working of “the Scottish play” (cue Blackadder the Third), I was curious to see how the original text would be integrated into the script and what parallels there would be, if any, in the plot. 

Reworking, re-interpreting, updating or incorporating Shakespeare into contemporary theatre is often a minefield, littered with some efforts that are full of sound and fury, often signifying nothing. This I experienced firsthand last month, when sitting through the Wooster Group/RSC’s disastrous reinterpretation of Troilus & Cressida down in Stratford.

I’m glad to say that Living With Macbeth was a wholly different affair on every level and an engrossing watch throughout. A tale of grief told through fatal visions – complete with quite literal daggers of the mind – and a myriad of false creations. There are some juicy satirical nods to the notion of ‘celebrity’ and a brilliantly crafted scene that sees the stand-up comedian character (well, persona, but I’ll say no more) reduce his routine to hollow bite-size descriptions, complete with generous canned audience laughter. All of the time, we are being supplied with food for thought to take away after the all too short running time of an hour and a half. 

For a cast of two, Braithwaite and Brannagan give us a fully formed, compelling and moving display of the highs, lows, inspiration and torment that have manifested themselves over the all of the actor’s yesterdays. Audience members may or may not have figured out the complex relationship between both men, but the tension is turned up to eleven as they blame each other for a dwindling career and the wider wrongs in the world. Our actor’s speech about how he knew he was born for the stage and “life would never be the same after playing third soldier” in a school production took me right back to playing Little Donkey on the recorder as a mop-haired eight year old and I’m sure it resonated (after all, “everything an actor says resonates”, we’re told) with anyone else that discovered a life’s passion at an early age. It’s a warm, beautiful counterpoint to the darker portrayal of the inner struggle that is played out before us and one that perhaps we all feel will bookend the vaulting ambition of our chosen path through life.

It’s only fair to point out that the performance benefited from some excellent lighting work and a minimal but effective deployment of music finished with a track by acclaimed singer-songwriter (and pillar of the North West’s musical fraternity) Kaya. The performance space also leant a sense of claustrophobic anxiety that complemented several long pauses in the dialogue throughout. 

So, for the tortured souls upon the stage, Living with Macbeth led to only toil and trouble. For me (and judging by the applause, all of us), a night well spent, a great production that I highly recommend when it inevitably returns! And hey, where else will you find a stuffed pelican puppet reeling off Shakespeare?

Words by Luke Moore

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