Festival preview: Macbeth

Scotsman on Sunday / Tim Cornwall

With its themes of greed and power, the 13 Macbeths at this year’s festival are testament to the Scottish play’s timely relevance, whether set in the Middle East or on Inchcolm Island, writes Tim Cornwell.

IT’S the story of dictatorship, a model of the consuming quest for power and the fate of bloody dictators from Muammar Gaddafi to Assad of Syria. A parable for England’s relationship with Scotland, or a theatrical legend where death and disaster stalk the staging.

Play it how you will, Macbeth has seized Edinburgh’s theatrical imagination this year. 2008: Macbeth, one of three Polish Macbeths at this year’s festival, is a promised tour de force at the Edinburgh International Festival, mixing pyrotechnics and video screens in a setting of the play in the Middle East.

In the Fringe, you can see Macbeth by taking a boat to Inchcolm Island, Macbeth in Scots, on motorbikes and stilts, in a rock musical. There appear to be at least 13 ­variations of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

International Festival director Jonathan Mills believes the number of Macbeths this year is a metaphor for the time we are living in. “You only have to look to the Middle East at the moment, you only have to look at a range of things to realise how absolutely relevant both this story and this context is in this very particular reading of it. It could be Assad, it could be Gaddafi, it could be any one of these people.”

The EIF’s 2008: Macbeth, in the spectacular setting of the Festival’s ambitious three-stage hub at the Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, promises pyrotechnics and video effects in a large-scale visceral production set amid Middle Eastern conflict. “It’s not a multimedia production, it’s a production that uses multimedia,” says Mills. “It’s cinematic in its approach to theatre-making.”

But Macbeth is “the pivot on which Scotland’s relationship with England turns,” declares Owen Dudley Edwards, a Scottish literary authority and theatre writer and reviewer. That comes in the character of Siward, the English war leader whose army ­topples Macbeth – and whose own ­experiment in nation-building was brilliantly explored in David Greig’s Macbeth sequel, Dunsinane, in 2010.

“England got a Scottish king, and immediately produced a play showing why Scots become English if they have to go anywhere,” Dudley ­Edwards argues, with Shakespeare writing Macbeth for King James I and VI, of England and Scotland. It is also, he believes, one of the greatest pieces of poetry ever written.

Polish director, Grzegorz Bral, who is bringing Song of the Goat Theatre’s production to Summerhall, is certainly focused on the “musicality” of the play, in the style of a Greek drama, rather than its text. “I know we are bringing wood into the forest, a Scottish play into Scotland, it’s a little ­ridiculous. But it’s the music of the poetry, or of the narration.”

Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?, is also a Polish production, from Teatr Biuro Podrozy. It was one of the Fringe’s most memorable shows, in one of its greatest settings, when it first came in 2007. Playing in the Old Quad, the torchlit spectacle features Macbeth and Banquo powering in on motorbikes, the witches as spectral figures on stilts, and Lady Macbeth ­naked in a bath, obsessed by her bloodied hands.

The production returns with a new Macbeth actor this year, Piotr Kazmierczak. Otherwise it remains the show first developed for Cork as the Capital of European Culture in 2005, and the company is bringing it alongside its classic Carmen Funebre production, also in the Old Quad, inspired by ethnic conflicts in the former ­Yugoslavia.

One strength of Macbeth may be of its universal story, so well-known, with such strong strands, motives and characters that it can be told in every kind of genre. Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? features high-impact “snatches” of classic dialogue. “We kept just the key lines for the audience to follow the story, but we converted the play into the sequence of images so the story is told in the images rather than text,” says director Marta Strzalko.

“We know the importance of Fringe festival, and how important a market and theatre stage it is for the international audience, and having the opportunity of bringing our performances back here we decided to do it with Macbeth as well.

“When we worked on Macbeth, for us it was the war in Iraq. The outbreak of war, and violence and disturbance in the world, the victory of the dictators, this was worrying us, these big figures that do everything to gain power and hold on to it.”

Summerhall’s Macbeth on Inchcolm Island in the Firth or Forth, is partly inspired by Ricky Demarco’s 1989 production, and will use the setting of its 12th-century abbey. It’s a production from St Andrews University with a cast of 15, and audiences of about 100 ­being ferried to the island alongside witches on a boat.

“For us it’s about reinforcing the Scottish setting on the island, and the history, making it very real,” says producer Elizabeth Stone. “I know some of the other Macbeths, not many of them are pure Macbeths and we want to keep it as pure as possible.”

The production first showed in St Andrews Castle. “It’s going to have to be a shorter version, somewhat, so the audience aren’t on the island for too long,” says Stone. “We are sticking very much to the Shakespearean text. It is set within the 12th century because we wanted to keep it within the abbey’s timeframe.”

The island is referenced in the play as Saint Colme’s Inch. From it you can see Kinghorn, also mentioned in the text as the place Macbeth defeated the Scandinavians in battle. “It really is at the heart of the history for Macbeth. It makes it a really apt setting for the play.”

Some of the Fringe’s Macbeth productions are certainly treading untested territory but do sound promising. There is ’Beth, a rock musical billed as 90 minutes of “sword-swinging, blood-drenched ambition”, from Violet Shock. In Lady M, a Dutch production, a “lady in waiting takes the stage and divulges all the gruesome details Macbeth failed to mention”. Macbeth Unsexed! promises murder and mayhem but with a cast of ladykillers.

The Song of the Goat Theatre made their name at the Fringe with Chronicles: A Lamentation in 2004. They’re also at Summerhall with both Songs Of Lear and Macbeth. In it the seven-strong cast use music and movement to convey the drama rather than text. “We are trying to find the essence of musicality, of the text, of the movement, of narration,” says Bral, “Actors are like instruments, they move in a very musical way.”

Last but not least is Macbeth in Scots, in a production from the amateur Edinburgh Theatre Arts with a show that critic Joyce McMillan praised for “a simple, austere design and a range of performances of great concentration and dignity”. It has been chosen as part of the RSC’s Open Stages, and is performing at St Ninian’s Hall.

2008: Macbeth, Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Saturday until 18 August, www.eif.co.uk; Macbeth on Inchcolm Island, Friday until 19 August; Macbeth by Song of the Goat Theatre, Thursday until Saturday, both www.summerhall.co.uk; Macbeth Who Is That Bloodied Man?, Old College Quad, until 19 August, www.tbp.org.pl; Macbeth in Scots, St Ninian’s Hall; until 18 August,