Preview: Macbeth

A new version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play is set in the modern day with a woman in the role of the politically ambitious would-be monarch. But it’s no radical reworking of the 400-year-old play

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Presenting a new take on a 400-year-old Shakespeare play is a double-edged sword. There’s no questioning the popularity, quality and longevity of the source material but how can a director give proceedings an original angle?

Director Christopher Haydon says:  “I remember when I was doing theatre studies at school and during one of the very first lessons the teacher said: ‘Don’t ever try to be original because everything’s been done before. Do what feels right for you.’ And that really stuck with me.”

The Macbeth Haydon has reworked for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre has a contemporary setting.

“It’s modern dress, the actors have assault rifles rather than swords and we’re not being specific about the geographical location – there’ll be no strong Scottish accents – but it’s safe to describe it as being in a dystopian UK setting,” Haydon says.

But the tropes it explores remain timeless. Macbeth examines political instability, blind ambition and the abuse of power. It is both traditional and startlingly relevant.

“All the points raised are incredibly resonant politically during current times,” Haydon says. “Look at what’s happening with Brexit in this country and Trump in America: across the world we’re seeing these established political orders shaking and people using that kind of trauma to enrich and benefit themselves. In the play Duncan is the embodiment of good but when the natural order he represents is forcibly overturned that disruption is used by Macbeth for personal benefit.”

One obvious way this new version of the Scottish Play does differ from the majority of previous takes is the decision to cast a female actor as the eponymous lead. Lucy Ellinson – with whom Haydon previously collaborated on Grounded, where she portrayed a fighter pilot – plays the egomaniacal general as she hurtles ever faster toward her fate.

“Yes and no,” Haydon replies with a laugh when asked whether casting Ellinson in a traditionally male role bears any particular significance.

“People have said to me that a woman can’t play Macbeth and my answer is, obviously she can. But in a way the idea for this show came from my relationship with Lucy rather than a more abstract idea of casting any female in that role. The play does explore masculinity but masculinity and maleness aren’t the same things and the assumptions we have about how people should behave can actually be enlightened by a piece of casting like this.”

He does admit though that the characters of Ripley in Alien and The Terminator’s Sarah Connor – “particularly bad ass warrior women” – helped inform the decision to cast Ellinson.

And as rehearsals proceed how is Haydon feeling about opening night?

“I don’t tend to get nervous before shows,” he says. “But I do get nervous afterwards when I’m waiting to hear what people thought. When we started assembling the team for this the main line of thought was if we can get something together that excites us, it will excite audiences too. Worries and fears are part of being creative but I’m genuinely looking forward to sharing this with people.”

Macbeth is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 13 Sept-19 Oct

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