2008: Macbeth; Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh International Festival

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The Independent Culture

A former cowshed beside Edinburgh Airport is transformed into a multi-level concrete bunker. Downstairs, the faithful obey the call to prayer. Upstairs, General Duncan watches an incident unfold on multiple TV screen. Captain Macbeth is refusing to obey the order to abort a mission. He leads his men into the mosque below where they shoot, stab and decapitate every worshipper in sight.

In director Grzegorz Jarzyna's freehand adaptation of Shakespeare's great tragedy for TR Warszawa, now brought to the Edinburgh International Festival, the poetry and much of the internal monologue has been replaced by a whizz-bang theatricality on top of a high concept which the play does not readily fit. It is set in Iraq, yet aside from the early, bolted-on, massacre, and the reinvention of the witches as a single wailing figure in a hijab, it could be anywhere. And what, exactly, is the foxy Lady Macbeth with the Amy Winehouse pompadour doing on a military base?

Aleksandra Konieczna plays her as a pushy sexual manipulator, kneeling in front of her husband’s fly, licking Duncan's blood from his fingers before receiving him against a handily-placed Coke machine. Cezary Kosinksi is a chilling Macbeth: tall and lean with a 100 yard stare. He delivers the few soliloquies which survive Jarzyna's red pen to neck-tingling effect, especially when his face is projected on one of the walls which doubles as a giant screen.

As a spectacle, this a whooping success: guns, explosions, fire, water, a soundscape which whooshes from techno to creepy white noise via cheesy lounge music, the soldier guiding a helicopter to land with flaming sparklers, the clever use of video cameras to take us into every corner of the set, the lighting which uses neon tubes, torches, spotlights and everything in between. All great. 

Shakespeare, however, should not need pyrotechnics to keep an audience going for  two hours without an interval. Neither does it require a gratuitous drag king Elvis, white rabbit or Uncle Sam in a spangly suit. Macbeth can take a high concept and many of the audience felt that this pile-it-high production compared badly with Alan Cumming’s recent one-man's-meltdown version. If Jarzyna wanted to point up the distracting partying and plotting that went on during the Iraq war, he could have directed his talented cast and enviable technical crew towards a more suitable vehicle.

Until August 18