THEATRE / Murdering the text: Sarah Hemming on Julia Bardsley's Macbeth in Leicester, and Murder Is Easy in London

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Talking about the proposals that won her and Tim Supple the joint artistic directorship of the Young Vic (after David Thacker's departure), Julia Bardsley has described their vision for the theatre as the 'Alternative Recession Aesthetic'. Far from staging the safe fare that the economic climate would seem to invite, they say they will assertively promote experimentation and innovation.

This is bold and promising talk, to be admired and encouraged: it would be desperately sad if British theatres were to feel themselves so financially restricted that by the end of the recession we emerged with coast-to-coast drawing-room comedy. It's also a view with which many theatre directors - from the national companies, through the regional reps and touring companies, to the smallest fringe groups - would probably concur, as they struggle to match risk-taking with box-office income.

How far, though, can you go? Bardsley's latest production at Leicester Haymarket, where she is currently joint artistic director, is a version of Macbeth that is anything but staid. It's bold, it's imaginative and it's experimental. It attempts to refresh the story for a contemporary audience and to use techniques from performance art and other media (music, video) to create a modern stage vision of the violence and unnatural acts that run through the play. In spirit, it is preferable to an earth-bound, plodding production that offers no reading of the play; yet here the very techniques that aim to open up the text finish by shutting the audience out.

To begin with, Bardsley and her creative team dispel suspension of disbelief. The actors are all on stage throughout, hanging about; the lighting rig swings low over the boards; and the acting area is scattered with chairs and cushions. No blasted heath or pleasant castle in sight: all the action takes place in this anonymous arena. The weird sisters are represented by wild lighting and a figure in dark glasses who projects a film of herself on to a wall at the side of the stage. The text is cut, rearranged and frequently delivered in a non-naturalistic style: Macbeth's soliloquy, 'To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus . . .', is belted out into a microphone, rock-star style, while a guitar screeches and wails in the background. Most noticeable are the lighting effects, which are clever and at times painful - suddenly flaring up from near- darkness to blind the audience.

It's certainly violent, it's also profoundly alienating, and what gets lost is the story and the power of the text. It is hard to form any relationship with the characters or to chart the inner progress of either of the Macbeths (Rory Edwards and Kathryn Hunter) when they are so submerged by the staging. At one point Macbeth builds himself a fortress from the chairs on stage, while Lady Macbeth gathers the scattered pillows together to make a path along which she trots distractedly. These are strong images, representative of the characters' states of mind, yet one longs for them to be matched by the subtlety with which good acting can convey the same message. Frequently it is hard even to hear what is going on - partly because of the almost continuous soundtrack, partly because characters often mutter their lines or deliver them with their backs to the audience. None of this helps towards any understanding of the plot; the small schoolboys in front of me were soon more involved with their sweet packets than with Macbeth's rise to power.

There are, however, several moving passages. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene is powerfully performed (Kathryn Hunter giving an arresting, twitching performance as a woman torn by her instincts and well out of her depth); the murder of Lady Macduff and her children is an understated, quiet scene, in which Natasha Pope creates a warm, gentle portrait of domestic harmony, worlds away from the savagery of the Macbeths, as is the scene in which Macduff (Tony Guilfoyle) is told of her murder. In these scenes the power of the play is unleashed, as in the desolate ending. For most of the production, though, it is buried by the weight of effects.

Far rather this, however - the bloody, bold and resolute spirit of adventure - than the new West End production of Murder Is Easy, which offers just the sort of recession aesthetic that directors like Bardsley reject. Daring it is not. This aims for safe, solid houses with the most innocuous material.

Murder Is Easy is a stage version of an Agatha Christie mystery by Clive Exton (who has adapted many episodes of the successful Poirot television series). As a whodunit, it is passably interesting and enjoyable: you do want to know who did it - or rather did them - enough to keep you going, but there's little else to engage you.

The dialogue creaks and the characters are paper-thin - they are only there as cogs in the machinery of the plot, and are hence fiendishly difficult to play. The cast have a good shot, but it is hard to turn blustering old major, sweet little old lady, salt-of-the-earth home help and fey artist into anything more substantial. Wyn Jones, who directs, may have intended them to be played tongue-in-cheek - a wise move if he did; if he didn't, well, that's how they appear anyway.

The plot isn't exactly out of the top drawer, either. Nearly all the murders in the sleepy village of Wychwood-under-Ashe have been committed before the action starts, and our self-styled detective's method of investigation consists of marching into his suspects' homes and telling them how suspicious he is (Peter Capaldi giving as much gusto as he can to this wan individual). The real mystery about affairs like this is how the production team mustered up the energy to mount it at all. It's hard to blame theatres for playing safe, but here's to those who, in a time of recession, still want to give us bitter brews and hefty stews, as well as bedtime cocoa.

'Macbeth' continues at Leicester Haymarket (box-office: 0533 539797); 'Murder Is Easy' is at the Duke of York's, London WC2 (071-836 5122).

(Photograph omitted)

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