Theatre: Unkindest cut

MACBETH: DIRECTOR'S CUT PURCELL ROOM, LONDON
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THERE HAVE certainly been some rum versions of Macbeth in recent years. Jane Horrocks's Lady M urinated onto the stage in a production set in a Waco-style American Hare Krishna sect. The witches have frequently been pensioned off, and there have been several attempts to demote the central couple to the level of their 20th-century shadow-selves, those infantile psychopaths Pa and Ma Ubu.

All of which illustrates the compulsion to use deviations from Shakespeare's tragedy as a way of asserting modern scepticism about belief and notions fundamental to the play: the idea, say, that evil is an external metaphysical force, objectified in the black hags. Joining this reductionist line-up comes Macbeth: Director's Cut, Volcano's abridged, bashed-about, brutalist reworking by Nigel Charnock, which narrows the focus down to a claustrophobic monomanie a deux, played out by Macbeth and his wife.

As a meditation on the philosophical basis of Shakespeare's play, the show would be better named Macbeth: The Unkindest Cut but it begins arrestingly. Behind a scrim and in front of a ruched scarlet curtain that lends a touch of Gothic camp to the proceedings, Paul Davies and Fern Smith roll and thrash about in a manner that suggests they are far from indifferent to each other. Tossing her raven mane and turning the "unsexing" speech into an orgy of groping autoerotisicm, Ms Smith also mimes to a spine-tingling Callas recording of Verdi's opera and even takes to the floor with her partner in an incongruously tasteful rendering of the "Blue Danube" waltz. It's all way over-the-top, but it powerfully underlines the way that sex gets perverted, for this couple, into goading blackmail, a stimulus to and attempted relief from murder.

It's not long, though, before the show makes a cacophonous change of gear. The theatrical flummery collapses, leaving an ugly bare arena and tense queasy video footage (by Rheinhard Lorenz) that whirls us down the cellar steps of a suburban home sickenly similar to 25 Cromwell Road.

Some of the images are genuinely disturbing: on film, Fred West/Macbeth lovingly fondles lethal tools then wipes his hands on a babygro pegged on the washing line; on stage, Macbeth/Fred West batters the skull of Lady Macduff's young son then plants a perverted kiss on it. Neither of the Macbeths in this version expire and there's a piteous tableau where the wife, who had once imagined dashing the infant from her breast, regresses to babyhood and forlornly sucks on her spouse's dry nipple.

But the implied parallels seem to me to dignify the contemporary couple. Beyond satisfying their horrific appetites, what momentous issues were at stake for the Wests when they tortured and murdered? Were they aware, like the Macbeths, that they were violating some sacred order? Reports have been few of Rosemary West sleepwalking in prison in involuntary remorse. It's the banality of the show itself, not the banality of evil that this version demonstrates.

Paul Taylor

Edinburgh (0131-662 8740)23-30 Aug Bath (01225 448844), 1-4 Sept

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