Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse as Shakespeare's tragedy turns 400

A new Leeds Playhouse production of Shakespeare’s visceral tragedy Macbeth opens next weekend. Nick Ahad reports.

A merciless struggle for power, enemies and former friends stabbed in the front and the back, corrupt leaders willing to let the world burn as long as they continue to ascend and hold steadfastly onto their position. Why does that sound familiar?

This is not a news report on the current state of several nations, but a description of a play that will be 400 years old next year – and has never seemed more relevant. Macbeth is a play for the ages that is having a real moment.

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Last month saw the release of the Joel Coen black and white Apple TV production The Tragedy of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington in a now Oscar-nominated role with the highly regarded Frances McDormand as his Lady Macbeth. Next month Broadway will welcome the finally retired James Bond Daniel Craig as the ambitious king with Ruth Negga by his side in a production directed by Tony Award winner Sam Gold.

Leeds Playhouse - Macbeth Rehearsals. Photo: Kirsten McTernan

In Yorkshire we have one of the most energetic and visionary directors working in the North in Amy Leach who is about to bring her take on the play that-must-not-be-named in some theatre circles, to the stage at Leeds Playhouse.

She thinks the reason directors are coming back to Macbeth – not that they ever left it, the play is perennially popular, just more so now perhaps – is to do with the self-contained nature of the story.

“You get to create a complete world. I mean, it’s technically in Scotland, but because so much of it is in and around a castle, as a director, a film-maker, it’s a gift really because you can create the landscape that you want these characters to inhabit and exist within,” she says.“And once you’ve done that, once you’ve decided on the world and the landscape, you kind of get to create your own rules of that world.”

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Director Amy Leach. Photo: Kirsten McTernan

It is true – James McAvoy famously played the title role under director Jamie Lloyd, who set the piece in a futuristic Scotland where people were fighting for resources.

In October last year London’s Almeida saw Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth in a modern military setting and Coen’s black and white film affair goes for a Scotland of almost 1,000 years ago.

The natural question then, is in what world will Leach set her Macbeth, but before that, the question of why now is one that plagues writers and directors, but it is one worth asking here.

The Playhouse has been ravaged over the past year–and-a-half by the effects of the pandemic, just as all theatres have, so the management team, which includes Leach as the building’s associate director, are looking for titles they know will bring in an audience.

With the play a constant on the syllabus, it makes sense to stage it because it means a guaranteed schools audience – but there’s a lot more to the programming of this production than that.

“I found myself re-reading it during lockdown, I don’t know why I returned to it, I think I wanted to connect with big stories and big worlds,” says Leach.

“When we came to programme this season it all happened quite quickly, much quicker than it normally would because of the pandemic. It wasn’t actually that I had some great burning desire to do the play, it was more about what we thought audiences would want to see and I think audiences are hungry for those big, epic, meaty stories. Plus, it’s often people’s first introduction to Shakespeare. ”

As Shakespeare’s shortest play, it is apparently an ideal one to introduce teenagers to his work. There is good reason for the brevity, Leach says.

“He gets straight in there, no secondary plot, no peripheral characters, the action gets going on the stage and it’s ‘boom’. Scene five and they’re off to kill the king. It’s a really exciting text and you know who the bad guys are and you are straight in there with the characters and their stories. I edited Hamlet and that had a lot of subplots going on.”

This is the third big Shakespeare production we’ve seen from Leach in Leeds and if her previous two are anything to go by, it will be a treat.

In her 2017 Romeo and Juliet she brought an urban vibrancy to the tale of the star-crossed lovers and in 2019 she cast Tessa Parr as a female Hamlet and brought an entirely new understanding to the text. It’s fair to call her a real visionary when it comes to putting the Bard on stage. So, her vision. It’s the first time she’s decided to bring a Shakespeare to the

Playhouse stage in period costume, but there is a specific reason. Hailing from a little over the border, the story of the Pendle Witch Trials in the 1600s have always interested Leach.

“You have the witches and kings and queens and it all feels quite of the Middle Ages and I couldn’t really think of a modern equivalent,” she says.

“The Pendle Witches, who have inspired the witches here, I think are a really useful touchstone. They were women outside society so in our production they will stand outside the action and almost be omnipresent commentators on the story.”

As well as being a brilliant director of Shakespeare, Leach has also become increasingly evangelical about making productions accessible.

“We are making the whole show audio-described and it will be integrated. We haven’t had to do very much at all – it turns out Shakespeare was brilliant at access: he writes ‘the king is approaching’ or ‘I’m going to draw my sword’. He writes BSL (British Sign Language), he’s painting brilliant pictures on stage.”

It’s true. As does Leach. It’s a thrilling combination.

Shakespeare’s shortest play, thought to have been first performed in 1606, is brilliantly gothic. Courageous Scottish general Macbeth is prophesied by three witches to one day become the King of Scotland and is consumed by an insatiable hunger for the throne.

Ever pushed on by his wife Lady Macbeth, he commits foul deeds to grasp at power, murdering King Duncan to take over the throne of Scotland, but ultimately it all leads to his own tragic end.

Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, February 26 to March 19, details www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or call the box office 0113 2137700.

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