What’s done can be redone

AI-driven content and animated sequences are deployed in a new version of Macbeth, as well as dystopian politics. But they are not gimmicks says its director Andrew Quick

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In a parallel world, in the not too distant future, there’s a giant free-port called Estuary City – a sort of comic book version of London where there’s no regulation and it’s run by big business and crime. A world where market forces dominate and and only the strongest and most ruthless survive, this neon noir setting is a million miles away from 11th century Scotland. Nevertheless, this is where Lancaster-based touring theatre company Imitating the Dog’s production of Macbeth unfolds.

“Our Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are street kids who rise from the lowest strata of this society to the top,” explains director Andrew Quick. “They are sucked into a world of violence and exploitation. Our Duncan is a gangland crime lord in the sprawling metropolis and we watch their rise and tragic fall.”

The stage feels more like a graphic novel than a theatre set, visually influenced by Japanese cinema, the original Blade Runner, anime and manga.

Video material is projected onto a wall that jags across the back of the stage, on which the story unfolds. Two screens hang at the front of the stage, showing close-ups of the tragic couple, shot live in the space. It’s a format that Imitating the Dog is adept at – having staged productions of Dracula and classic zombie movie Night of The Living Dead in a similar format. But it’s evolving too.

“It’s more collaged than in previous productions,” says Quick. “We have been exploring images and content produced by AI and also creating animated sections that draw on various internet sources.

“It’s as if the world is being created from digital fragments – the visual story emerges out of the detritus of the digital landscape. It’s beautiful at times and in turns grotesque and violent – it parallels and connects to the language of the play.”

Technology is key to Imitating the Dog’s storytelling process – not only making sections more thrilling and moving but working as part of the world-building.

The Three Witches. Main image: rehearsals for Macbeth (Ed Waring)

Quick says: “This is created by the witches, who play all the other characters in the play and versions of themselves, very like the original, where the three witches meet Macbeth and through their prophecy set the narrative rolling forward. It’s the same with our witches, except they create the whole world, through playing with language and with the technology.”

The biggest challenge of using this type of technology in a live theatre setting is not the potential for it going wrong – although it’s always a risk, Quick admits – but making it feel integral to the story.

“We avoid using the technology as an illustration or as a gimmick. It can’t be intrusive.

“Technology is part of our everyday experience and it’s important that the audience get a way into our use of it through their own experience of interaction with screens and information.”

Does it entice audiences that wouldn’t necessarily go and see a Shakespeare play otherwise?

“I’m not sure. I suppose we’ll find out pretty soon,” says Quick, whose production opens in Doncaster on 21 February, before touring the North. “I think it brings something new to bear on a text that a lot of people know or have studied.”

Shakespeare’s main story remains – one of violence and revenge – but it’s staged like a thriller with several plot twists, some of them new.

“We have taken some liberties with the text. A great deal of the original survives, but we have changed the story and created new sections, not in verse, that are spoken by our witches, or tricksters, as we like to call them. This brings a new take on the narrative, one that complements the original.

“You never know with Shakespeare. He’s our national poet and playwright and it’s always risky to adapt what are often thought of as sacred texts.”

Front and centre of this production is Maia Tamrakar, playing Lady Macbeth, as much as her co-star Benjamin Westerby, playing Macbeth.

“We bring some new material to this character and some new plot lines and twists,” says Quick. “Her story is very important, and we are keen that she’s not portrayed as an evil alter-ego to Macbeth. She has a story of her own.”

Another important aspect of the play for Quick is that the audience root for the Macbeths a little.

“There is this element in Shakespeare’s original text. That’s why the play is so good – they are not just villains. I want the audience to be moved by their story. I want them to recognise the world that they exist in and see their demise as tragic. Their attempt to make the world better for themselves was doomed from the very start.”

Macbeth is at Cast, Doncaster, 21-22 Feb; Harrogate Theatre, 24-25 Feb; Dukes, Lancaster, 28 Feb-4 March; Lowry, Salford, 8-11 March; Gala Durham, 16-17 March; Liverpool Playhouse, 25-29 April; and LBT, Huddersfield, 3-6 May (imitatingthedog.co.uk)

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