The only wholly student-run theatre in the land remodels “The Scottish Play” into a muscular, modern-day office drama. Nottingham University’s New Theatre production doesn't depict the bland-o-rama that might house the likes of a David Brent or a Gareth, though. Rather this is one where the water cooler is toxic and ill winds blow no good through the air-conditioning.
Transporting Shakepeare’s shortest tragedy into the realms of a sniping but crocodile-smiling office is a strong concept. Seeing the fractured allegiances, internecine jealousies and sell-your-granny-down-the-river ambition of a royal court played out in the land of paper clips, dodgy nail varnish and jammed photocopiers is a delicious prospect. The results, if a little undercooked in places, nevertheless merit strictest attention.
Sam Warren is perfectly cast as the doomed Macbeth. His well-regarded middle-manager, one ever-conscious of not quite possessing the mustard for CEO, is a figure almost begging for manipulation by a shrewd and ambitious conspirator.
Step forward Lady Macbeth: a devilishly predatory Florence Haddon-Cave. And with eyes and a brain every bit as sharp as one of her husband’s daggers, it’s clear it won’t be long before the body count starts to rise.
However, by keeping the majority of the blood-shedding off-stage, director Tom Barnes allows focus to remain on the complex drama of the characters’ relations. It also means the rare moments when the consequences of the gruesome twosome’s deeds are shown seem all the more startling. Jonny Fitzpatrick’s Banquo (one-part Oxbridge cad to-two-parts swashbuckling rogue) is always either spoiling for mischief or starting a party. So his posthumous revisiting of Macbeth, which sees him parking his ghostly figure in the new King’s chair whilst still visibly bleeding from the neck, is especially effective.
The production is threaded with plenty of smart references, too: the Apple logo on Haddon-Cave’s laptop, for instance, is a nut-sweet primer for her serpentine role in proceedings.
But this is no production composed merely of nerdy student in-jokes. The moment where Warren stands stage-front, turning his wedding ring around his finger, mind a storm of anguish as he weighs up personal aspirations and husbandly responsibilities over honour to the boss really is theatre of the highest order.
Credit, too, goes to producer and set designer Emily Davenport. The drearily decorated, tat-strewn office is instantly recognisable, and conversions between board room, office and living room are executed with impressive precision. And although there are one or two missteps (the delivery of cardboard boxes from Burnham Wood feels an unwelcome comedic clanger at a moment necessitating real tension) the quality of the cast right across the board(s) is enough to carry things through.
James Bentley is a wiry, mannered but resolute Macduff, and Rupert Bradshaw’s elegantly wasted Porter provides levity in the form of some fairly salty innuendos. But garlands aplenty must be heaped on the two leads; both of whom deliver captivating performances in immensely challenging roles. Warren’s versatility in particular is in full evidence; the Ferris Bueller-esque cheeky sod of the first act giving absolutely nothing away of the jugular-bursting, volcanic interior he summons up for later scenes. And Haddon-Cave is utterly compelling as the rapacious antagonist, sensing an opportunity for a glimpse of greatness and grabbing it whatever the cost. But when the carapace is slowly corroded by guilt over her part in the horrors, Lady Macbeth’s disassembling of mind and body is expressed with real poignancy.
That the entire production, from the funding to the stage sets, the costumes to the cast, is pulled off by the University’s students themselves is a formidable achievement. And with just a few tweaks perhaps, this New Theatre production of Macbeth would surely be worthy of a transfer to a much bigger, more auspicious venue.
Macbeth was performed at The New Theatre, University of Nottingham from 23 to 26 November 2011