There’s a lot to like about Proteus Theatre’s original take on Macbeth, especially if you’re a fan of all things 80s. The action of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been transplanted to the cut-throat financial markets of London in 1987, inspired by the crash of Black Monday. Director Mary Swan’s vision is one that fits well with the story of Macbeth, in which power is everything and rivals will stop at nothing to come out on top – but despite some solid performances and strong design decisions, the production as a whole never quite takes off.
Unfortunately, this is largely due to an unconvincing portrayal of Macbeth by Riz Meedin. Though he does a decent enough job as the hen-pecked husband who’s browbeaten into regicide by his scheming, ambitious wife (Alexandra Afryea), the character never really develops beyond that. Even later in the play, his Macbeth still feels hesitant and not at all like the murderous tyrant hellbent on slaughtering men, women and children alike to secure his position. If anything, Danny Charles’ slightly sleazy Duncan and Jessica Andrade’s manipulative Malcolm come across as more threatening.
While both Charles and Andrade prove themselves adept at playing multiple parts (including a couple of very entertaining cameos), the play’s strongest performances come from Alexandra Afryea as Lady Macbeth – already at the brink of insanity when the play begins as a result of both her ambition and her grief for a lost child – and Umar Butt, in two very different guises as Banquo and Ross; his appearance as the ghost Banquo is one of the play’s most striking (and gruesome) scenes.
The 80s setting is cleverly worked in; each scene change is heralded by another classic hit, and the characters’ power suits and corded phones leave us with no doubt what decade we’re in. Instead of a crown, the current “king” is portrayed as a sort of mafia don figure with their coat draped across their shoulders, Macbeth snorts cocaine before murdering Duncan, and Banquo and Fleance head out for their fateful ride wearing motorcycle helmets. Katharine Heath’s clever multifunctional set design finds the characters first battling it out on the stock exchange trading floor (with Duncan and Scott on the rise; a nice detail) but with a few simple rearrangements transforms into a lift, an office, a dinner table and a phone box, among others.
The concept does slightly lose its way in the final battle, because it’s not really clear who’s fighting who, or how or where. The confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth also feels a bit anticlimactic, although the framing of Macbeth’s killing as a hit rather than a death in combat is interesting and gives the play’s conclusion an original new angle. There’s certainly no lack of drama, either, with Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting design bringing an intensity to the stage even at times when it’s missing from the performance.
Shakespeare’s work is so frequently performed that it’s refreshing to see a version like this one, which makes you consider a story you know well in a completely different way. It’s also great to see Shakespeare performed by an entirely BAME cast, something we still don’t see enough of in London. Tapping into the greed and corruption of the business world is a clever move, so it’s a pity that the production itself – though imaginatively staged – doesn’t always reflect the necessary ruthlessness to quite carry it off.