Macbeth, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Properly handled, the technique of transplanting Shakespeare's plays to places where equivalent social customs and religious beliefs still survive can have the effect of blasting off the accumulated plaque of stale stage tradition and revealing the drama anew.

Properly handled, the technique of transplanting Shakespeare's plays to places where equivalent social customs and religious beliefs still survive can have the effect of blasting off the accumulated plaque of stale stage tradition and revealing the drama anew.

This is true of the Twelfth Night now in the West End, where the mourning rituals and tragicomedy of status-seeking find a happy adoptive home in contemporary India, with its cramping caste system. And now Max Stafford-Clark gives a wonderful freshness and trenchancy to his Out of Joint production of Macbeth by depositing the proceedings in post-colonial Africa, where witchcraft continues to be practised and nations are torn apart by feuding warlords. For Scotland, read Liberia, or Sudan - or (by extension, and with certain adjustments) Iraq.

The immediacy of this touring production is heightened by the fact that it will be sites-specific at each port of call. Shakespeare's haunted tragedy unfolds hauntingly in three unsettling, ghostly environments. In the gaunt theatre workshop, Macbeth (Danny Sapani) and Banquo (Chu Omambala) are summoned by a voodoo rite of escalating abandon. For the rest of the play, both actors and audience are on the stage, which is divided lengthways by a makeshift wall with doors so that the Macbeths can welcome us through, as guests, to their disastrous first dinner party ("You know your own degrees"). Crammed round the long dinner-table, the audience is then subjected to one of the most unnerving effects I've ever witnessed in a staging of this scene.

Taking his cue from the late Ugandan dictator's support for Scottish independence and his bizarre offer to become its king, Stafford-Clark merges aspects of Idi Amin with Macbeth. Once he's murdered his way to the top, this warped product of colonialism here discards African apparel in favour of black tie and kilts. In Monica Dolan's slim and alarmingly focused Lady Macbeth, he has the kind of formidable white wife who now channels into him the will and drive she once gave to her job as an aid worker.

But there's little Amin-like bombast in Sapani's mostly quiet, brooding Macbeth: it's notable that he delivers those inward, searching soliloquies as almost guileless appeals for help to the audience. The trouble is that he continues this tactic of engagement in the later scenes where, in my view, the character is too benumbed and beyond it all to care about such contact.

If the production sometimes goes a detail too far (child soldiers, all too real in life, can't help but be unconvincing on stage), in general the modern parallels are handled with ungratuitous cogency. The dollars handed over in Macbeth's second encounter with the voodoo witches gain him a bowl of drugged drink, and apparitions that are the leader's disguised reflections in a silver dish, until his own imagination sets to work.

And the production imparts a palpable sense of evil. In the scene at the Macduffs' house, there's a further sickening twist when Macbeth silently commands an innocent man to kill a crying child and then toyingly scorns to give him the release of death. Strongly recommended.

To 6 November (020-7503 1646)

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