Edinburgh Fringe 2023
A sparkling gem of a show with a really innovative take on the physical and mental damage that flows from misplaced political ambition.
Macbeth’s proclivity for violence to get what he willed is a major theme of Shakespeare’s often re-worked (and much studied) tragedy. It was therefore slightly alarming, waiting outside theSpace@Niddry Street’s spacious Upper Theatre, to hear the sounds of clashing metal, heavy breathing and a lot of shouting/grunting coming from within. Heaven only knows what was going on in there. It sounded dangerous. But interesting!
And so it proved in Shadow Road Productions’ genuinely “electrifying adaptation” (to quote the show’s own PR) of what many thesps will refer to only as “The Scottish Play” such is the theatrical superstition around uttering the piece’s true title.
Shadow Road is the brainchild of founder/artistic director Emma King-Farlow. It’s is a small theatre company which specialises in bringing works of theatre for all ages and occasions to unusual spaces in creative new ways. Perfect then for this, their Fringe debut where every available Edinburgh nook and cranny morphs into a performance space during three mad weeks each August.
King-Farlow’s skilfully edited and staged adaptation is perfectly pitched from witchy start to blood-letting finish with the cast of four woman each playing a central role, flipping to a range of vignettes as the plot demanded. They stick to the original text most of the time but judicious insertion of new modern language material bookends the piece as well as providing occasional and helpful plot signposts as the action unfolds.
The plot? Well, think political ambition in overdrive and the physical and psychological damage resulting therefrom to those who seek power and to those who are subjected to it. Just look around you if you want modern day examples.
Performed in the round, the quartet use every square inch of a blank stage with exits/entrances at each corner and work hard to ensure the audience feels involved and engaged. Mind you, with the passion, tension and range of other emotions on display, no one’s attention is going to drift far for fear of missing something from what’s a universally strong cast.
Amy Floyd (Macbeth) has a formidable, almost frightening stage presence, inhabiting Macbeth with gravitas and political cunning that makes Machiavelli look like a pussy cat. Victoria Adler (First Witch, Macduff and a very engaging Doctor) differentiates her main and subsidiary characters with great skill, subtle changes in posture and voice ensuring you know just who she is playing at what point.
Emma King-Farlow (Second Witch, Lady Macbeth) is colder than a deep freeze, another one who could out-Machiavelli Machiavelli in a trice. Brilliantly understated in this guise (she delivered the coldest “out damn spot” speech I’ve ever heard) she flipped seamlessly between this, her role as a deranged witch and a couple of other characters in a heartbeat. Completing the cast was the very adaptable Sarah Robinson who was bumped off with surprising regularity when she wasn’t up to mischief as Third Witch or effecting most of the (simple) set changes.
There’s so much about this piece to both admire and enjoy and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into its staging. The witches feline movement, the swirling of their cloaks creating the impression of mist drifting across a desolate Scottish landscape. The use of geometry to keep audience sightlines clear – triangles, diamonds, squares of performers skilfully maintained as they moved around the stage. Costumes were simple, yet expressive. Sound effects were vocalised or played on simple instruments by the cast.
Then there’s the tricky challenge of dealing with so many murders, particularly that of the extended Macduff clan, not to mention those of Duncan, Banquo, a few guards and other hangers on. With only four in the cast it would have been all too easy to run out of actors, so most of the deaths occur offstage with a mix of blood curdling cries and deathly silences. Very effective.
But they saved the best until last – the denouement between Macduff and Macbeth. The stage tension between Floyd and Adler was electric as they circled each other like a pair of prize fighters preparing to go the distance. Verbally it was superb, words being spat with a vehement intensity that raised hairs on the back of the neck. Physically, it was breathtaking, sword fighting that felt real, blood that looked it. Peerless. And the all work of Floyd who, it appears, has been a practising martial artist from a very young age and is now a specialist fight choreographer. Not someone to mess with, then.
This is a real sparkling gem of a show but one that’s feels like it’s hidden in plain sight even though it’s hosted by one of the Fringe’s more central and comfortable venues (full disclosure, I’ve staged many shows in it) with a 10.15am start. Too early for you? Come on, people! This show would be worth getting up at any hour to go see. They’re only running until 12 August but I’ll be making tracks for a repeat run. Yes, it was that good. Set your alarm clock and get down there.