MACBETH WITH ATTITUDE

DEFINITIVE VIEWING: TV EYE
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You can be certain that no production of Shakespeare has ever featured a character called "Crackhead's Sidekick". Until now. Penny Woolcock's vibrant, if violent, Macbeth on the Estate transposes the Scottish play to a nameless modern-day British council estate. Macduff delivers a prologue from a wasteground between high-rises. Gang members smoke spliffs, and rival thanes, battling for control of the estate, set about each other with baseball bats. After the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth sings "I Will Survive" at a karaoke night. "You can update it," claims producer Alison Gilby, "but themes don't date."

It was filmed on the Ladywood estate in Birmingham last summer with the firm support of the City Council. After a special dispensation from Equity, it features the enthusiastic participation of 130 local residents. "There's a lot of talent in Ladywood," reckons Pearl McCauley, who runs the local Gilby Road Residents' Action Group and plays a woman Duncan takes a shine to. "Without this sort of programme that wouldn't be recognised. A young girl told me she had been about to leave school, but because of the filming she was going to do a drama course."

In a break between scenes, Gilby perches on a very low chair in the St John's Church of England Infant School dining-hall. She says she sent out 2,350 letters to residents asking for their cooperation and was overwhelmed by the response. "We've enjoyed being here and a lot of people have enjoyed having us here," she declares. "It's been an attempt to integrate the BBC into the community. I don't want to sound patronising, but it allows people to feel TV has relevance to them."

Martin O'Brien, a lorry-driver who takes the role of Seyton, affirms the production's importance on the estate. "It'll be talked about for years. If it's crap, I'll never live it down. I'll have to move house. But I've got the bug now."

Darren Whitbrook, another Ladywood resident who plays a crackhead in the film, concurs. "It's brought the community closer together, so there'll be benefits," he stresses. "It's like a magnet, it's done wonders." It certainly has for Whitbrook's acting ambitions. He now has an agent and a part in EastEnders.

He dismisses press speculation that this lowlife portrayal of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll will give Ladywood a bad name. "The play shows how people are," he continues, "you can't get away from that. It would be unfair to say that's what Ladywood is like, because it isn't. Drugs and child murders can happen anywhere."

Woolcock, who made the award-winning documentary, Shakespeare on the Estate, in which theatre director Michael Bogdanov led locals through various scenes from the canon, is used to relocating Shakespeare to unfamiliar settings. She placed this Macbeth on an estate because of "this idea of feudal warlords slugging it out over money and territory. It's a place where politics has failed."

Like Baz Luhrmann's modern-day LA gangland Romeo and Juliet and Ian McKellen's 1930's fascist Richard III, however, Macbeth on the Estate promises to have the traditionalists fuming into their First Folios. "Some people will disapprove," Woolcock concedes, "but you can't please everyone. If Shakespeare is kept traditional then it's just for tourists and the dead. It doesn't have to be done with codpieces and funny voices to make sense. Here the actors in modern dress are delivering lines in Elizabethan English, and it sounds like the way they speak now."

David Harewood, who plays Macduff, agrees. "People say, `Shakespeare has nothing to with me,' and too often you see him done in `ye olde Englishe'. You turn on your TV and people are talking RP. Where does that come from? The 1920s and drama school. But I'm doing Macduff with a Jamaican patois. It fits well. You can make Shakespeare relevant to the present time," he asserts, before adding with a laugh: "Spielberg will be here next month."

`Macbeth on the Estate', tonight 10.30pm, BBC2

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